Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

What’s even better than recycling?

Hello Young Naturalists!

This week is all about waste and how to make make less of it!  We will learn how to practice the 3 R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle)--even if you think you already recycle.

First, we have to understand just what waste is! You’ll see that waste has changed over time and that it can be challenging to responsibly manage our waste.

We’ll challenge you to the most creative ‘reuse’ ideas you can think of. And there are instructions to make fun game that you can play alone or with your friends.

Then, you can test your recycling know-how!

Waste in Our World

Let’s talk about it…

What Did Waste Look Like Way in the Past?

Most of the waste this man produced could decompose or be reused. Same for the horse. Photo: “HorseBuggy_MainST_c1902_2” by Small Town OK

In the “olden days,” our waste looked different than it does now.

Before the invention of plastic and many chemicals used today, people’s waste was mostly made from natural types of things. Basic things. When they were thrown away, they could pretty easily “biodegrade” (safely break down in the environment).

Plus, many things were reused many, many more times before they were finally considered trash.

  • Our clothes were made from animal and plant sources. like wool, cotton, and leather. They were patched when they got holes, and then used as rags when they were worn out.
  • Metal and glass items were melted down and made into new items, if they could no longer be reused (kind of like today!). 
  • Paper and wood could always be reused in other ways, like for construction and repairs, insulating walls, serving as toilet paper :), feeding fires, etc. 
  • Leftover food went to feeding our pets and livestock, like chickens and pigs.

There wasn’t much left that went unused!

What Does Modern Day Waste Look Like?

Plastic and other new materials have totally changed how waste works. Photo:“Plastic World” by Farruska

We have lots more waste today because we make lots more things! And we really like many of these things a lot! 

Most of these things are made with invented materials. Many materials, like plastic, are made from oil and gas taken out of the earth. Some items we buy are a mix of different types of invented materials. 

Today our waste is more complicated because of all these new materials. Some of these things can’t safely or easily break down in the environment. 

  • People now use tons of plastic disposable items. Many are used only once and then thrown away! Examples are take-out cups, bags and wrappers, food containers, plates/cups/utensils, straws, bottles, etc.
  • Even old-fashioned material like paper and metal can be mixed up with plastic and new chemicals. For example, some cardboard boxes, metal cans, and paper plates are covered with waxy plastic. That’s what keeps your food from leaking through your paper plate. It is too hard for most recycling centers to separate the materials , so they have to become trash instead.
  • Plastic and cardboard packaging usually covers almost anything you buy. That stuff gets thrown away almost immediately.
  • And we have tons of electronic devices because of many technological inventions. Talk about mixed materials and complicated waste items! 
  • Food waste often gets thrown away, because people buy pet food and livestock feed from the store instead. (We’ll talk more about food waste in our next blog about composting.)

That’s a lot just piling up.

What To Do With All This Waste?

When people realized that the amount of waste was really mounting up in our world, they started to take a closer look at it. 

Modern waste just piles up with nowhere to go. Photo:“Garbage dump in a forest, #2” by nio_nl

They noticed that many more items in the “landfills” (places where garbage trucks dump their loads of garbage) were not safely breaking down in the environment. Plastics, for example, including styrofoam, weren’t even breaking down at all! 

Some items had unsafe (“toxic” and “hazardous”) chemicals in them. People knew that these should not be allowed to escape into our environment. They would cause damage. Sometimes these chemicals escape by leaking out of trash landfills, or by being burned or dumped. Are there other ways that you know of where waste causes problems?

And some electronics, like cell phones, have rare metals in them. The metals could be reused, if they weren’t lost to the trash. 

People started thinking a lot about these things. And they started developing ways we could all use to manage our waste more wisely and responsibly. 

  • They thought about reducing waste first. Making less waste means less of a problem to fix!
  • Then they thought about reusing things. It would be good if some of the things we already had could be used longer, before replacing them with new things.
  • And, finally they started thinking about how some things people throw away could be taken back to the manufacturers. There they could be used to make new things. That would reduce the burden on the earth for material. 

They developed systems to collect these things and remanufacture them and they called that ‘recycling’. 

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

Maybe you’ve heard this motto before? We use it when we teach others about ways they can manage their waste. 

#1: Reduce

This is first because it’s the most important one. Here are some ways to reduce how much trash you make:

  • Think about what you buy. Do you truly want it or need it? Maybe you can share somebody else’s? Does it look cheaply made and might break easily?
  • Buy things made from recycled material. Doing this means less materials has to be taken out of the earth in order to make new things. This also helps support recycling!
  • Buy used items. Look for what you need at thrift stores, yard sales and at online sites that feature used items.
  • Scout out items that don’t have a lot of packaging. Sometimes different brands use less packaging than other brands.
  • If you will use it all, buy large containers of things instead of going back again and again to buy small amounts. This is called ‘buying in bulk’.  For instance, a large container of pretzels can last for some time. But many smaller packs of pretzels can add up to a lot of packaging to throw away. 

Tip: You can make your own portion packs using a small reusable container or reusable bag for when you want to take some along with you.

Whenever possible, don’t use ‘single-use’ items. Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Use a reusable water bottle instead of buying plastic water bottles.
  • Use washable plates and utensils instead of disposable plates and plastic utensils.
  • Use bags and containers that you can wash and use over and over again.
  • Use reusable straws. 

#2: Reuse

This artist upcycled old computer parts for a sculpture. Photo: “Computer Parts thingy” by kokopelli1330

When it comes to reusing things, the sky’s the limit! Just put on your thinking cap.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Repair broken items when you can. You may need to ask for some help with that.
  • Consider giving your things new homes:
    • Sell them in a yard sale or online.
    • Give stuff away!
    • Donate them to a thrift store or charity
    • Hold swap events with friends. Clothes swaps. Bling swaps. Toy, game and book swaps. You name it!
  • Things like food containers, frozen food bags, cans, bottles and jars can all be used to hold something else after they are empty.
  • Think of ways to repurpose objects (use them in new ways). Maybe you won’t put any more eggs in that egg carton, but you could use it for sorting beads.

Items can also be made into other, different things after you make a few changes to them. This is known as “upcycling”. 

Here’s some easy examples:

  • Decorate an empty can and use it as a pencil holder. 
  • Turn an empty glass bottle into a pretty vase using decoupage (a way to smoothly paste on things like cut out pictures or tissue paper.)

Have you done some activities like these before? 

Your turn: Turn Trash into Fun

Here’s an example of turning a milk jug into fun game! You can play by yourself. Or, you can always make more “mitts” and play a ball toss game with friends.

You can also come up with your on way to upcycle some trash! We got this idea from the article Upcycling: 36 Projects for Kids.

Visit Hands On We Grow for other upcycling ideas.
Milk Jug Toss

This is a game of catch that one person can play. You try to catch a pompom tied to a jug in the jug. It will be kind of like a large “mitt”. 

Hold the jug handle with the opening of the jug facing up. Give it a good rocking to swing the pom pom or ball up and then try to catch it with the jug – “mitt”. 

You can make it more challenging with a smaller ½ gallon sized jug.

Empty and Clean Plastic Jug – gallon or ½ gallon size
Yarn Pom Pom or Wiffle Ball
String or Yarn
Masking or Duct Tape


1. Cut the bottom of the jug off. Cover the cut edge with masking or duct tape.

2. Attach a long string or yarn to a Pom Pom or a Wiffle Ball.

3. Run the other end of the string or yarn through the top of the jug to the bottom of the jug and tie the string to itself. (You will probably need to experiment with how long to make the string.)

4. Start practicing!

You might have noticed we never got to #3
, recycle. We’ll get to that tomorrow. Start with reducing and reusing!


  1. People’s waste has changed over time. Waste today uses lots of invented materials that have trouble breaking down in the landfill.
  2. Making lots of things means taking more materials like oil and gas from the earth.
  3. People can make less waste for landfills by reducing and reusing.
  4. Make an upcycling craft to turn your trash into fun.
  5. Share how you’ll put these ideas to work in the quiz below!

By Carrie Gibbons

Carrie Gibbons is an AmeriCorps member who has been teaching businesses, schools and churches how to reduce their waste. She is in the Zero Waste Program at Rural Action.

She loves the outdoors! Her favorite things to do there are hike, canoe and lie down under the stars :)

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