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        K-5, 13+

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        Recycling and Composting

        In this lesson plan, students learn about the value renewable resources hold for our society and the broader community of living things. They expand their understanding of two important conservation activities we can engage in: recycling and composting.

        Lesson Summary


        In this lesson, students learn about the value renewable resources hold for our society and the broader community of living things. Because trees, fresh water, and clean air support most forms of life, we must protect these and other critical natural resources from over exploitation and pollution. Conservation, the practice of using natural resources in a way that ensures their continuing availability to future generations, is one approach. Through class discussion and various activities, students broaden their understanding of two important conservation activities that humans can engage in: recycling and composting.


        • Identify examples of renewable resources and how humans use them
        • Understand what recycling is
        • Understand what conservation is and explain how it can help preserve the environment
        • Understand what composting is and the environmental and societal benefits it provides
        • Identify food waste and household items that can be recycled or composted

        Grade Level: K-2, 3-5

        Suggested Time

        Four class periods

        Multimedia Resources


        Before the Lesson

        Write the following Composting Do's and Don'ts on a large sheet of paper. Tape this to the wall prior to or during Part III of the lesson.

        • COMPOST: Leaves, grass, weeds, small garden clippings, pine needles, wood ash, bark, nutshells, fruit and vegetable scraps (peels, skins, or seeds), coffee grounds (including the paper filter), tea bags, sawdust, newspaper, paper towels, napkins
        • DO NOT COMPOST: Meat, fish, bones, dairy products, vegetable oils, fats, human or pet waste, charcoal ash, plastic food packaging and glass containers

        Make copies of all worksheets for your grade level (one per student).

        The Lesson

        Part I: Renewable Resources

        1. Begin with a brief discussion of the two kinds of natural resources: renewable (those that can be renewed or replaced in a relatively short time by natural ecological cycles when properly managed) and nonrenewable (those that cannot be replaced at all or that take a very long time to replace). Examples of nonrenewable resources are the oil and natural gas we use to heat our homes and the gasoline we use to run our cars. Extend the discussion by doing the following:

        1. Have the students name some renewable resources. List these at the front of the classroom. The list might include plants (including trees) and animals, air, water, wind, and so on. Ask why each one is important to humans and describe how we use them. For example, we make paper and build houses from trees, eat plants and animals, make clothing from plant fibers and animal skins, drink water, and harness wind energy to make electricity.
        2. Now have the students look around the classroom and find examples of products made from renewable resources (for example, cotton clothes, leather shoes, books/paper, wooden furniture, etc.).
        3. Lead a discussion on what we can do to help ensure that we do not use up our renewable resources. Ask students to identify some of the potential consequences to both local and global populations if we run out of clean water, for instance, or do not replant trees to replace those cut for timber or pulp. Make sure the exchange includes the idea of conserving renewable resources (using less of them), and recycling them (using them again). The next part of the lesson focuses on recycling.

        Part II: Recycling

        2. Tell students that they are going to watch a short video, and when it is finished, they will try to answer these questions:

        • What is recycling?
        • Why should we recycle?

        Show the Visiting a Recycling Plant QuickTime Video to the class and then facilitate a discussion about the two questions. Most students will come to the conclusion that we need to save forests. Next, ask students how many of them recycle materials at home. Make a list on the board of the materials they recycle. Continue the recycling part of the lesson using these activities:

        1. Ask students if their town or city has recycling services and what type of materials they collect. (You might want to find out ahead of time in case they don't know.) Make a list of these materials and compare it against the list created in the previous step. Differences might include cardboard and scrap metal, which many towns collect at drop-off centers but do not collect from homes.
        2. Now that students have seen why it's important to recycle, divide the class into teams of four to five students each and tell them that they are going to make their own recycled paper. Each team will need newspaper, a bowl, and a mixing spoon. Here are the instructions you should give each team:
          1. Tear the newspaper into small pieces, filling the bowl about halfway.
          2. The teacher (or another adult) will add enough hot water to the bowl to cover all the paper.
          3. Using the mixing spoon, mix the newspaper with the water, making sure that all the paper gets wet.
          4. Put the bowl aside to sit undisturbed. (Note: If you cannot complete the activity by the following day, you may need to check the pulp in between sessions to ensure it does not completely dry out.)

        Show the Making Recycled Paper QuickTime Video. This offers students a preview to the rest of the papermaking activity. After watching the video, have each team collect their bowl and mixing spoon, and direct the students through each of the following steps. For younger students, it may be helpful to have extra adults in the room to assist with the project, or you may choose to set yourself up in a central location and rotate the groups through.

        1. Add 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of cornstarch and a little more hot water to the bowl.
        2. Mix the wet newspaper into the consistency of pulp (similar to oatmeal).
        3. Drain any excess water with the strainer. (Refer to the video for instructions on how to make an aluminum foil strainer.)
        4. Take another sheet of aluminum foil and lay it on top of a few sheets of newspaper.
        5. Spoon enough pulp onto the foil to make a sheet of paper. Each student should make one sheet.
        6. Put the aluminum foil strainer on top of the pulp. Lay another sheet of newspaper on top of the strainer.
        7. Flatten the pulp by pressing down on the newspaper. This will squeeze out and absorb excess water, making the pulp as dry as possible.
        8. Remove the newspaper and foil strainer and add decorations to the pulp.
        9. Pinch together any holes in the pulp.
        10. Lay a new sheet of aluminum foil on top of the pulp.
        11. Place some books on top of the aluminum foil. The pressure from the weight of the books will help make the pulp as flat as possible. You may want to press down on the books to further flatten the pulp.
        12. Remove the books and aluminum foil, and allow the paper to dry overnight.

        Part III: Composting

        3. Ask students if they know what composting is and if they know anyone who composts. Then open the Compost Office Flash Interactive. Select "Why Compost?" and read aloud and discuss the contents. Do the same for "A Big Heap of Science" and "The Perfect Recipe." Next, tape your Composting Do's and Don'ts sheet on the board and read it aloud. Proceed with the following activities:

        1. Go around the room and ask each student what he or she had for lunch. List the food items as well as the food packaging, such as cans, plastic wrap, napkins, and so on.
        2. Go through the list, asking the students to decide whether each item can be composted or not.
        3. Finish by reading aloud "Turn, Turn, Turn."
        4. Open the "Can You Keep a Microbe Happy?" game, and play it with the students. As they go through the game, make sure they understand why watering and turning a compost heap are essential for decomposition to occur.

        Check for Understanding (Parts I and II)

        To check students' understanding, have them complete the recycled papermaking activity. Begin by selecting the appropriate grade level.

        Grades K-2

        1. Have each student carefully peel off his or her piece of recycled paper from the sheet of aluminum foil.
        2. Then have students share their recycled paper with one another in small groups or as a whole class. As they share their piece, have them explain what they will tell their parents or guardians about the activity when they take their paper home.
        3. You may also want to ask students to draw pictures of what they learned about the forest and/or recycling. You can display these drawings on a bulletin board to showcase the topic.

        Grades 3-5

        1. Have each student carefully peel off his or her piece of recycled paper from the sheet of aluminum foil.
        2. Assign a papermaking project as homework. Instruct students to make a sheet of recycled paper, but this time using a material other than newspaper. For example, they can use magazine paper or cereal boxes to make the pulp.
        3. Ask the students to write a short description of the material they chose, why they chose it, and any observations they had while making the recycled paper. They should end with a statement of what they learned from the project.
        4. Have students bring their recycled paper and writing assignment to class. Ask them to share their experiences with the entire class.
        5. Lead a classroom discussion about any lessons learned through this activity and the take-home assignment.
        6. Ask students to debate the costs of recycling paper. Be sure the discussion includes the use of resources needed to do it, including clean water, energy to heat the water, cornstarch, and aluminum foil. How might the process differ in real-world recycled-papermaking facilities?

        Check for Understanding (Part III)

        To check students' understanding, have them complete the following activity. Begin by selecting the appropriate grade level.

        Grades K-2

        Send each student home with a Composting Do's and Don'ts Worksheet (K-2) PDF Document. The student should work with an adult to write down everything that was thrown away after dinner, including food items, paper products, and plastic or glass containers. The student should decide if each item can be composted or not, and the adult should put a checkmark in the appropriate column.

        Grades 3-5

        Send each student home with a Composting and Recycling Worksheet (3-5) PDF Document. The student should write down everything that was thrown away after dinner, including food items, paper products, cans, plastic food packaging, and glass bottles and jars. The student should decide if each item can be recycled or composted or if it should be thrown away.

        Extension (Optional)

        • Invite a local artist who makes paper to share his or her art with the class.
        • Arrange a field trip to a recycling plant.
        • Create a classroom recycling center. This is actually a "pre-cycling" center where children will separate recyclable material into various containers before sending the sorted materials to the town recycling center.
        • Write an article in your parent newsletter about the recycling project. Encourage parents to help their children create a "pre-cycling" center at home.
        • Create a compost pile for the class to add to and use regularly.

        The Digital Library for Earth System Education ( offers access to additional resources on this topic.


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