Bag Blog

For Elementary School Students, Recycling Challenge is in the Bag

By CJ Doon

April 18, 2014

Recycling is easy. In fact, you might say it's so easy, an elementary school student can do it.

What you might not know is how well an elementary school student can do it.

For the past eight weeks, sixteen elementary schools in State College Area School District have been collecting plastic bags as part of a nationwide recycling challenge. A final weigh-in was conducted on Thursday. The grand total -- an astonishing 360,384 bags were collected, weighing in at over 5,631 pounds.

"This is the first time we've ever done anything like this," says Amy Schirf, education coordinator at Centre County Recycling & Refuse Authority, who helped organize the event with local schools after reading about it online in mid-February. "And we did not think we were going to get anything like we've been getting. It's just been crazy."

While the competition brought a level of excitement to a simple task like recycling, schools have taken the opportunity to teach students how to protect the environment and understand the importance of reducing waste.

Students in Katie Roth's third grade class at Grays Woods Elementary say they recycled plastic bags from all over town, including stores such as Target, Wegman's, and Walmart, in addition to their own homes.

"My favorite part was to save the Earth from pollution, and saving stuff from being thrown into the landfill," says third-grader Sophie Wales.

"So the earth isn't polluted, and we have fresh air to breathe," adds classmate Davis Ross.

In fact, they've become so environmentally conscious that some are even correcting their parents' wasteful habits.

"My dad goes to work every day, and usually he takes his lunch in plastic bag," says student Ethan Warner. "Usually he just takes one and throws it away, but now we use his collection, put them in a Trader Joe's bag, and bring it to school."

Even Schirf, a parent of a Grays Woods student, has been on the receiving end of a student's recycling lesson.

"There was this one little girl who was at my house the other day," says Schirf, "and I had a Zip-Loc bag, and she said, 'You know, you can recycle that.' So they are really in tune with plastic bags now after this competition. They know what you can recycle."

Sponsored by Trex, a company that manufactures recycled lumber and materials, the competition pits schools against one another to see who can recycle the highest total of plastic bags. Nationwide, 424 schools have collected over 9.7 million plastic bags. State College has played no small role in generating that total, with kids bringing in bags by the armful.

"The initial week or two started with kids bringing bags in their backpacks, and handfuls of bags here and there," says Grays Woods Elementrary Principal Kristen Dewitt. "The last couple weeks, I've seen kids come off the bus with bags of bags bigger than them. Parents will come in the middle of the day with a trunk load of bags, and pull up in front and ask people to take two or three trips to bring them in."

At the end of the day, the bags are transported to the recycling center, where they are counted and weighed by Schirf and her co-worker, commercial recycling employee Mimi Cooper. Each package of bags is weighed by hand with a small luggage scale and recorded before being tossed into a heaping pile almost as tall as the ceiling.

It's tough work, but Schirf and Cooper view it as a way to get their daily exercise.

"From throwing the bags, I've actually had days where I'm sore," says Schirf. "In one hour, I've thrown over 1,000 pounds."

"It's going to be a new Olympic sport - bag tossing," jokes Cooper.

After the the two winning elementary schools are announced at a Monday morning press conference, Schirf and Cooper will deliver the prizes on Tuesday which, fittingly enough, is Earth Day. Those two schools will receive a gift certificate for a Trex Recycled Plastic Lumber raised garden bed, made from recycled plastic bags and wrap. In addition, all sixteen participating schools will receive a Trex Recycled Plastic Lumber Park Bench made from 10,000 recycled plastic bags, as well as a Trex Recycled Plastic Lumber Bird House.

Beginning last year, parents and community volunteers began work on a sustainable garden at Grays Woods elementary school. The garden provides fresh vegetables for students and faculty to eat during lunch hour.

While winning the garden bed would be great, Dewitt says she's proud of everyone at Grays Wood, regardless of the final total. The important lessons learned from the competition is more than enough.

"This contest has not only made them excited about winning," says Dewitt, "but I think more that they're learning how valuable and how easy it is to start saving some bags, toss them in our recycling center, and making a difference."