Trash Goes To School
Produced by
Cornell Waste Management Institute

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Trash Goes to School was produced in 1991 by the Cornell Waste Management Institute working with a team of people from Cornell Cooperative Extension and other agencies in New York State:

Jean Bonhotal -- Cornell Waste Management Institute

Edith Davey -- Cornell Cooperative Extension, Oneida County

David Diligent -- Cornell Cooperative Extension, Albany County

Ellen Harrison -- Cornell Waste Management Institute

Bernadette Lawrence -- Cornell Cooperative Extension, Sullivan County

Kevin Mathers -- Cornell Cooperative Extension, Broome County

Valerie Molierno -- City of Amherst, NY

Celeste Richardson -- Niagara County Environmental Management Council

Carin Rundle -- Cornell Waste Management Institute

Suzanne Schwarting -- Cornell Cooperative Extension, Lewis County 

Robin Tait -- Tompkins County Division of Solid Waste

Harry Heng Tecb-Meng -- Cornell student

Nancy Trautmann -- consultant to Cornell Waste Management Institute

Tami Williams -- Cornell Waste Management Institute

Thanks to all the organizations that allowed Cornell Waste Management Institute to adapt activities from their resources for this project:

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation

American Paper Institute

Association for Vermont Recyclers

Brooklyn, NY, Curriculum Editorial Unit

Conservation and Environmental Studies Center, Burlington County, NJ.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome County

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County

Cornell University, Department of Natural Resources

Cornell University, Division of Nutritional Sciences

Earth Day 1990

Eco Alliance, Inc.

ERIC Clearinghouse for Science, Math, and Environmental Education

Genesee Co., MI, Cooperative Extension Service

Golden Empire Health Planning Center, Sacramento, CA

Islip, NY, Department of Environmental Control

Keep America Beautiful

Maine Department of Economic and Community Development

Morris Co., PA, Solid Waste Management Office

National Science and Technology Week, 1990

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

Pennsylvania Resources Council

Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management

San Francisco Recycling Program

St. Lawrence County, NY

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Washington Department of Ecology

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Wisconsin State University Cooperative Extension Service

Sample Teacher Letter

Dear Educator:

In New York State and the nation, managing our solid waste has become an overwhelming task. The costs of disposal are rising, related environmental degradation is occurring, and controversies are arising over siting of new landfills and incinerators. Laws are being implemented to ensure sound solid waste planning and minimize problems such as these. There seems to be a lot of work for everyone to do, and you can help!

As educators, we have an important task ahead. The next generation of decision-makers is being educated in your classroom. So, how can you help? By starting this generation off with information and habits that emphasize reducing the amount of waste we produce, reusing, recycling, and composting whatever we can, and incinerating, landfilling, and finding other technologies to dispose of the rest.

Trash Goes to School provides you with:

  • solid waste background information,
  • activities for K-12 to present a well balanced picture,
  • ideas on how to use solid waste issues in teaching many subjects, including math, science, English, social studies, and home economics, and
  • glossaries appropriate to the grade levels.
  • There are many more resources available, so if you have a specific need, ask your local recycling coordinator for more help.

    {Add some local program history here if appropriate.}

    Solid Waste Management

    Background Information

    Whatever we decide to label it -- rubbish, trash, waste, refuse, or garbage -- the piles keep growing. It comes from homes, schools, businesses, factories, and other places; it is generated by people of all ages. As hard as we try to reduce and recycle large amounts of waste, we will still have some left to be disposed of. In the United States, we generate over 160 million tons of municipal waste each year -- 3 to 5 pounds per person per day. Approximately 10 percent of that amount is recycled, 10 percent is burned, and the remaining 80 percent is landfilled.

    Why is there suddenly a problem? Everything appeared to be taken care of: garbage was put out for haulers and was taken away. That is only a partial view of the picture, however. Our problem has been accumulating for a long time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) predicts that 80% of the existing permitted landfills will close within 20 years. There are many reasons we are losing our landfill space. Older landfills are filling up, federal, state, and local restrictions are becoming stricter, and there is greater public opposition to siting any new facilities.

    We must re-educate ourselves to realize that waste is a resource that should be managed. Across the nation, waste management laws are being enacted and communities are developing plans for better management of their garbage. Management of waste requires a comprehensive plan. It will take the right combination of options to meet each community's needs. These options include waste reduction, recycling and composting, incineration, and landfilling.


    Waste reduction is one of the most important aspects and one in which everyone can participate. In the most basic form, we need to think about what we are buying. When making purchases, buy only what you need, use substitutes for toxic substances when possible, buy durable rather than disposable products, and consider packaging and recyclability. *One out of every eleven dollars spent for groceries in the U.S. pays for packaging. Schools can reduce wastes in many ways, including using paper on both sides, sharing resources when possible, using durable items, reducing disposables and excess packaging wastes in lunches, and setting a good example for others.


    The current level of recycling in the U.S. is about 10 percent. Our garbage must be looked at as a resource instead of something to throw away. The benefits of recycling include not only saving of landfill space, but also conservation of energy, decrease of pollution, conservation of resources, and reduction of expenses due to avoided costs (the tipping fees at landfills and incinerators generally are higher than the costs of recycling).


    Over half of our waste stream is organic material that could be composted. Compost is a valuable resource for lawns and gardens. By composting, we save space in landfills and turn waste into a product that can improve soil and increase its water-holding capacity.

    Composting is a natural process that occurs with or without our help. In nature the process continues independently, but since we generate so much organic waste, in densely populated areas we need to speed up the process. Many people have compost piles in their own backyards Where that is not possible, community composting areas provide a good alternative.


    The role of incineration is one of the most controversial issues that communities are facing in solid waste management. Among the concerns are presence of undesired metals and organic chemicals, the quality of the ash (which must be landfilled), the financial risks, and the worry of becoming a target area for garbage imported from other places.

    Arguments for incineration include the possibility of recovering energy, the decreased amount of material needing to be sent to a landfill, and the destruction of pathogens.

    Incineration has made many technological strides over the years. Originating as burners transported by horse and wagon, incinerators now are modern facilities equipped with pollution-control devices, up-to-date operating procedures, and in some cases front-end separation of material that should not be burned.


    Landfills will always be needed to manage our noncombustible, nonrecyclable materials, as well as ash from incineration and residues from recycling. Since 80 percent of U.S. landfills are closing, we must insure that landfill space will continue to be available for our communities' garbage. In some places, landfills will remain the primary management option when other options become infeasible because of size and population density.

    In recent years, many improvements have been made in landfill technology. New types of liners inhibit groundwater contamination, and methods have been developed for collection of methane gas and for collection and treatment of leachate.


    With all solid waste options, there are risks, even with something as natural as composting of organic wastes. Decisions about the acceptable level of risk must be made by each community. This will depend on size of the area, population density, costs of the various options, possiblities for cooperation with other areas, and consideration of the whole picture.


    Facing America's Trash -- What Next for Municipal Solid Waste? Congress of the United States, Office of Technology Assessment. October, 1989.

    *Waste: Choices for Communities. Concern, Inc. September, 1988

    Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle: Suggestions for Children


    * When you go shopping, take along a bag and tell the cashier that you won't need a new one.

    * Avoid buying fast food unless it is served in recyclable packages.

    * Boycott products that are overpackaged. Choose items packaged in containers that are recyclable or made of recycled materials. Write to companies and tell them why you are making these choices.

    * Don't buy or use disposable products. Switch to cloth napkins, carry drinks in refillable thermos bottles, and carry your lunch in washable, reusable containers. Instead of paper towels, use a cloth or sponge to clean up.

    * Don't buy aerosol cans. They can't be recycled, and they contain ingredients which cause air pollution. Instead look for spray bottles or other alternatives.

    * Try to avoid creating hazardous wastes. Many household cleaning products can be replaced with simpler, less hazardous materials.

    * Reduce your use of batteries. They contain heavy metals that are toxic. Try to use mechanical objects, ones that plug in, or rechargeable batteries.


    * Donate outgrown toys and clothing to a worthy cause, rather than throwing them away. Even worn-out clothing can be used as rags for cleaning, car polishing, etc., rather than using disposable paper towels.

    * Create a compost pile. With very little effort, yard wastes and food scraps can be made into compost, which will help your garden or yard to grow.

    * Learn to fix things rather than throwing them away. When buying new objects, look for sturdy ones that will last for a long time.

    * If you or your family have old magazines or books you want to get rid of, donate them to a hospital, nursing home, or waiting room rather than throwing them away. Share a subscription with a friend.


    * Find out what is recyclable in your community, and help your family to make whatever changes are necessary to recycle everything possible.

    * Ask your parents to buy drinks in glass or aluminum containers instead of plastic, since glass and aluminum are easier to recycle. Avoid buying drinks in unrecyclable containers.

    * Whenever possible, choose products made from recycled materials. Unless people want to buy recycled products, companies will not produce them.



    It is easy to blame others for abusing the environment, but in just one year we New Yorkers created more than 21 million tons of solid waste. Americans are more wasteful than people in any other country. Recycling is one solution, but not the only one.

    PRECYCLING and WASTE REDUCTION mean making less garbage. Precycling is the easiest and cheapest way to deal with the garbage glut and help our environment. See how many of the following ideas you can try:

    1. Choose reusable alternatives to disposable products:

    a. A sponge instead of a paper towel
    b. A reusable razor blade instead of disposable shavers
    c. A mug instead of disposable (plastic or paper) cups
    d. Washable plates or china instead of paper plates
    e. Cloth napkins instead of paper ones
    f. Cloth diapers or diaper service instead of disposable diapers
    2. Be an environmental shopper:
    a. Don't buy things that are overpackaged. Ask yourself, "Is this packaging really necessary?"
    b. Avoid single serving packages
    c. Use a soap bar instead of liquid soap dispensers
    d. Buy toothpaste in large tubes instead of other, more wasteful containers.
    3. Buy in bulk to reduce packaging waste that is thrown away:
    a. Buy concentrates of products like detergents, cleaners, and juices
    b. Buy large sizes of products
    c. Buy fruits and snacks loose instead of in packages

    4. Bring your own bags to the grocery store. When you're asked "paper or plastic," say "No thanks, I have my own bag." If you buy only one or two items, don't use a bag.

    5. Use both sides of a sheet of paper when making copies or writing. Reuse glass, plastic and metal containers to hold small items such as bulk purchases, sewing supplies, crayons, hardware, etc. Cardboard boxes can also be used again.

    6. Invest in a battery charger and use rechargeable batteries, or better yet, avoid using batteries whenever possible.

    7. Share your magazines and newspapers with your friends. Bring recent magazines to hospitals, nursing homes, doctors and dentist offices.

    8. Cut down on junk mail by writing to:

    Direct Marketing Association
    6 East 43rd Street
    New York, NY 10017-4601

    Ask them to take your name off unwanted mailing lists.

    9. Donate reusable clothes, toys and other items to charity. Make old clothing into new by painting or decorating or remodelling in some way. Make rags out of unusable clothes.

    10. Get your nickel back. Return used soda and beer containers to the store to redeem your deposits. Yes, the big plastic bottles too.

    11. Repair appliances and furniture instead of throwing them out. It's usually less expensive.

    12. Write to manufacturers about excessive packaging. They'll listen.

    13. Compost grass, leaves and other yard waste in your backyard.

    14. Tell your friends, family and neighbors that precycling is here!

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    Cornell Waste Management Institute ©1991
    Department of Crop and Soil Sciences Bradfield Hall, Cornell University
    Ithaca, NY 14853