How These School Leaders Created a Schoolwide Recycling Program

Pro tip: Recycling team buy-in comes from hard work, persistence, and a whole lot of fun.

Author: Staff Writer

Staff Writer

A successful schoolwide recycling program is the stuff clean, green, sustainable school dreams are made of. But how do you get there? We talked to a couple of Recycle Rally school leaders about how they keep the train on the tracks—and how to ensure everyone stays on board.


Be patient (but passionate!) with your schoolwide recycling program


Student participants for PepsiCo's Recycle holding garbage bags of recyclables at their school


Michelle Pender, a first-grade teacher at Hanceville Elementary in Alabama, knows a thing or two about creating a schoolwide recycling program. She’s previously been named an Environmental Conservation Education Teacher of the Year and has helped the school win Clean Campus awards from the state. Michelle believes it’s all about starting small—but dreaming big. Hanceville started with a simple barrel to collect plastic bottles. Now, they collect everything from plastic and paper bags to crayons, markers, and toothbrushes.


Michelle said it’s all about a commitment to getting the word out passionately and consistently. “Different members of our Clean Campus Crew record video messages highlighting a ‘Recycling Item of the Week,'” she says. “We share tips and updates on our recycling totals and encourage the local community to bring their recycling to school.”


Hanceville Elementary’s everyday curriculum has been incorporating recycling know-how, too. They’ve built an outdoor classroom and worked with local conservation groups, participated in anti-littering campaigns, hosted clean-up days, and led beautification projects. Quite the journey from a simple barrel for plastic bottles!


Look for the helpers for your schoolwide recycling program


A recycling container with a bird feeder design in front of a tree mural to celebrate recycling


“I’ve learned to look for resources and helpers everywhere you can,” Michelle says. “It’s easy to say, ‘We can’t do this because there’s no city recycling,’ or to be discouraged when no one shows up to your first clean-up day. We discovered ways of integrating recycling in lots of small ways, which all add up to something great.”


Lastly, Michelle says that creativity plays a huge role in getting the school community active. Together, they built a recycling container with an attached birdhouse made of upcycled materials. The students love feeding “Bernie the Bottle Bird” with their plastic bottles to be recycled!


“I’ve learned that most people want to help and be better stewards of our environment,” Michelle says. “All they’re looking for is a program that welcomes all levels of participation and has some concrete, actionable tasks that they can do every day to help out.”


Show how your schoolwide recycling program will strengthen community


Teachers at Vernon Middle School participate in PepsiCo Recycle Rally Green Team


Teacher and ASB advisor Regina Purcell at Vernon Middle School in Montclair, California, says that when her district administration challenged the schools to be more “green,” she was on board. It didn’t take much for her students to dig in too and start a team. “My students noticed that kids were just throwing away empty bottles and cans, so we joined Recycle Rally. I think it came down to them realizing recycling is just one simple act that makes a world of difference.”


Through the excitement around the Recycle Rally Rewards program, Vernon Middle got school stakeholders on board. Then, they found motivational materials, lesson plans, and other aspects of Recycle Rally to keep engagement easy and interest booming. “We sometimes turn our recycling into a competition, and students and staff all participate,” Regina says.


Vernon Middle administrators are especially supportive of their green team efforts. This has made a huge difference. “Our staff and administration is supportive, and someone is always ready to volunteer,” she says. “This school is a family, and we all work together.”


Celebrate your schoolwide recycling program teammates


A mural displaying a school's recycling and conservation efforts for its schoolwide recycling program


Not only did the Vernon Middle community get on board, but the entire school began to gain a newfound sense of honor. “The first year we participated, our principal bought a large mural reflecting the hard work our green team did,” Regina says. “It proudly hangs in our hallway for everyone to see. Our kids feel a lot of honor when they see it, and new green team members take their yearbook photo in front of it.”


Regina went on to say many of her former students write to tell her that they are still recycling. “They’re even volunteering at local water basin gardens and community gardens,” she says. “I am really proud of the work and support everyone is putting into saving the planet.”

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