This Teacher Helped His School Save Money Through Recycling

Classroom recycling savings are at your fingertips with this teacher's top tips.

Author: Staff Writer

Staff Writer

School recycling programs make a huge impact on the environment. An added bonus? Classroom recycling savings can be an amazing boost to school communities. Read on to see how one ambitious teacher took his school recycling program to the next level—and saved money, built a team, and helped his school and whole community along the way!


Build on recycling wins and brave new goals


A pile of soda pop can tabs to be recycled


When Rick Wilson started teaching at Mesquite Elementary in Casa Grande, Arizona, he began collecting soda tabs for the Ronald McDonald House charity. One year, the school saved over 400,000 of them. Rick thought maybe it was time to raise the stakes on their recycling goals. “I started asking my students to bring in their cans,” he says. “Then, one day at the recycling center, they told me that I could also start recycling #1 plastic. That opened up a new world of recycling!”


Soon, students and parents started dropping off their plastic at school for Rick to recycle. The workload for Rick’s one-man band, however, was becoming challenging as the piles of recycling items grew each week—albeit, a great problem to have! Rick’s vision for Mesquite Elementary’s pathway to a broader recycling effort would need more hands, especially if he wanted to earn recycling savings and maintain sustainable goals.


Look for the helpers to grow a recycling program


School volunteers help sort and pack recycling in containers


Rick says that when he first started recycling, he would take five, 50-gallon bags of recycling to the recycling center. As the recycling program grew at school, Rick found himself in a bind. “I was driving back and forth, five bags at a time,” Rick says. “I told the recycling center my dilemma, and they offered to pick it up at school. We now do over 700 pounds at a time and can do as much as 1,000 pounds!”


The town of Casa Grande no longer does its own recycling, so Rick’s school program has become the city recycler, collecting #1 plastic, metal, and aluminum cans. Now, if someone calls the city and asks if there is recycling, they tell them to call Rick at Mesquite Elementary. “I like that my little recycle program that started in the back of my classroom has expanded to the entire city,” he says.


And until recently, Rick sorted it all himself. Now, he’s incredibly appreciative of his sorting team and their ability to both help the planet and earn money to help their school and community. “Currently, I have 10 people who come to help me sort about once a week.”


Make the most of recycling savings in bottle bill states or local programs


Map of US with recycling icon


Currently, 10 states and Guam have beverage container deposit laws, where recyclers can get anywhere from two cents to 15 cents back for containers based on type and volume. Casa Grande is in Arizona—which is not a designated “bottle bill” state. To work around that, some recycling programs, like Rick’s, work with local companies and recycling centers to earn money back. Check with your local municipality to verify what programs are offered in your area, or find a well-reviewed local recycling company.


Rick’s welcomed challenge came with the rapid growth of the program, expanding from school-only recycling to city-wide. As recycling grew to up to 10,000 lbs every couple of weeks, Rick worked with his recycling partners to manage the profits. “I take metal cans to the salvage yard every other week in my little recycle car,” Rick says. “My recycle guy, Jesse, sells his aluminum and #1 plastic to a buyer who picks it up from him. The scrapyard takes their metal up to Phoenix and sells that.”


Again, teamwork makes the classroom recycling savings dream work!


Uncover hidden savings in your recycling steps


Two workers dump recyclables in a green recycling truck


Recycle Rally schools have discovered various methods to earn and save money, and for many, it’s in the haul. Schools and communities may consider reducing the frequency of recycling container pickup or even reducing the size of containers to reduce costs and save. It’s often a zero-waste school goal.


Try this 30-Day Zero Waste Challenge!


Sometimes the recycling magic happens in the baby steps, too, Rick says. In particular, it helps when the whole school community buys in. “The kitchen employees recycle the large metal cans for us,” he says. “Last year, we recycled 2,124 pounds of metal cans. I am recycling for the entire city, [so sometimes] it’s baby steps at the school.”


Additionally, schools can consider negotiating rebates on recyclables. Sometimes haulers will consider this type of classroom recycling savings hack for large district accounts. Rick and his small team of sorters self-manage, with Rick taking metal every other week to the scrap yard. For now, they’re just super grateful the recycling center comes and picks it up—it takes a village!


Set goals, save money, and give back


Mequite Elementary teacher Rick Wilson recycles for his PepsiCo Recycle Rally team.


What you and your school recycling community choose to do with your hard-earned investment is up to you. Charitable giving? New resources for classrooms? Make it happen!


Rick and the Mesquite Elementary recycling program donate their recycling-earned money received to their local food bank. This year, the program made $4,000! They gave both to the food bank and the humane society. “When I taught third grade, we learned about community service,” he says. “Recycling and giving the money to a local organization was the perfect way to demonstrate this. I’m teaching fifth grade now, and showing my students how easy it is to help your community.”


Additionally, Rick won a $2,500 grant related to recycling and another $1,000 for placing 23rd in the Recycle Rally Challenge League. With those bonus funds, the program purchased a 3D printer, a laptop, and an extruder. “The extruder grinds up plastic and turns it into 3D filament for our printer,” Rick says. “We were throwing away #2 and #5 plastics, but now we can recycle them and make filament!”


Overwhelmed? Here’s how to make it sustainable


Female student throws away plastic bottle into a classroom recycling bin


Growing a recycling effort or entire program at your school may sound like an uphill climb—especially if you’re just starting as one leader with one big idea! Time, energy, and funding are not always available resources! But, like Rick’s journey, you have to take small steps forward, especially in the beginning, to reach classroom recycling savings goals. See how these school leaders used patience and persistence to create a Recycle Rally program in their schools!


Rick says that teachers can always start by having their own class recycle, and recycling contests between grade levels are always a hit. As that catches on, more classrooms will want to join. Then, school staff is made aware of the recycling program. Put bins in the teacher’s lounges, lunchrooms, etc. “Watch it take off!” Rick says, “After it gets that far it can have a mind of its own. It does take a lot of work, so having interested parties lined up to help before you get started always helps too.


Get started on your own school’s recycling journey and keep track of your larger recycling goals too!


Remember, every small recycling gain can contribute to classroom recycling savings and build into something amazing—a huge impact!


Pay it forward with big hauls and bigger Recycle Rally rewards


Teacher Rick Wilson hauling a blue recycling bin across a school parking lot


Rick says that when he dumps a 100-gallon recycling bin to sort through, he becomes relaxed and absorbed in the process. “It’s mindless work, but I know it’s doing so much good,” he says. “We’re helping the food bank, saving our earth, and setting a good example for the positives that come through hard work.”


Rick’s passion for the environment, recycling, and classroom recycling savings is nothing short of aspirational and contagious! “I like getting phone calls from teachers at other schools who come upon recycling and ask if I would be interested in picking it up,” Ricks says. “I always do, smiling the whole time because other people are recycling!”


Want to earn rewards (and savings!) for your school—and do an incredible job giving back to the planet? Learn more about how Recycle Rally Rewards works, and explore all of our Recycle Rally Resources for schools and communities!


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