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REduce. REuse. REcycle.

April is Environmental Awareness Month, and Earth Day is around the corner, April 22, 2021. How can we cultivate environmental awareness at home? How can we teach children to be part of the solution to save our planet while encouraging their creativity and resourcefulness with educational STEM activities? Here are practical tips you can adopt at home: The 3 RE’s.

REduce. REuse. REcycle. Overview:

The words are in that particular order, because it’s best to REduce waste in the first place. The less resources we use, the less negative impact we have on the earth. Ideas on how to do this later in the article.

Second best is to REuse things that would be wasted. Think of this as an opportunity to let your and your kids’ imagination and creativity grow and prosper at no additional cost. You have the power to REpurpose what was once termed “trash” into beautiful art masterpieces or impressive working technology. Your kids might surprise you with their limitless imagination, brilliant creativity, and high aptitude for making something out of “trash” that would otherwise go to landfills or be REcycled. Inspiration and ideas to come.

Third is to REcycle what wasn’t reduced and can’t be reused. General guidelines on REcycling below. See Lauren Reynolds’ blog post on “Recycling. Repurpose. Reuse.” for details!

Good: REcycle

DO recycle in your recycling bin: plastics that have a triangular recycle symbol with a number inside (except styrofoam), aluminum cans/lids, cardboard, paper… Please try to remember to rinse out plastic and aluminium containers before recycling.

DO recycle in special recycling areas: glass, batteries, electronic waste…

DON’T recycle: old shoes, hardback books, styrofoam, food-covered containers (like pizza boxes), diapers, tissues…

Remember that the recycling rules vary depending on location, so be sure to find out how to recycle where you live. Click here to see the rules for the City of Carrollton.

It is very important not to recycle things that should not be recycled because those things can cause issues at the recycling plant and waste the employees’ time to fix those issues. For instance, if you recycle old shoes, that could clog up a system designed to recycle plastics. Then, the employees might have to troubleshoot how to remove half a shredded old shoe or a melted old shoe from the machine or from the recycled plastic.

Better: REuse

As I said before, “trash” can become beautiful art masterpieces (see resource links 2, 3, and 4 below) or impressive working technology (see resource links 5 and 6 below). Give your child a pile of recyclables, tape, glue, and scissors, and a general directive to create a masterpiece, a tower, a working machine, or anything in between. Let them think outside the box while you sit back, relax, and prepare to be amazed at what they have created. The down time you can enjoy while they are working on their masterpieces is an added bonus.

REuse the cardboard boxes you have by REusing them as:

Boats, cars, sleds, trains, etc. made from the big boxes that your child can comfortably sit in. Your child can decorate the outside. This may keep them occupied for a long while. Enjoy your free time while it lasts!

Using lids of squeezy pouches, straws, and a toilet paper or paper towel roll to make a toy car or truck or anything else. My husband made a flexible string of applesauce lids by using a wire clothes hanger and stringing the applesauce lids onto it. A variation on that idea is to use a string and use lids of various squeezy pouches to make a bracelet or other jewelry and decoration. (Safety note: Be careful with young children. Necklaces are not appropriate until they are older because they might accidentally get caught on something and cause injury. Please do not allow your young child to play with a longer string of squeezy pouch lids without your supervision.)

Building a dollhouse/stuffed animal apartment complex out of packing boxes, and using leftover bits of cardboard and construction paper to furnish the inside. You can decorate using duct tape with nice patterns for wallpaper on the inside and solid colors for the outside OR paint it (with washable child-friendly paint) OR cover it with construction paper, either whole sheets or smaller pieces in a mosaic pattern.

Minecraft/Legos in real life. For example, make a square Minecraft head for your child by cutting a slit (for a peephole) through a box that fits comfortably on their head. If you cover it with varying shades of green construction paper squares, you’ve got a creeper. Also, if you make eight holes in a packing box and put toilet paper tubes through them on the top, leaving the bottom four holes empty, you have giant life-sized Legos.

Organizer Bins: (saves you $) You can cover the boxes with paper to decorate and personalize your new organizer bins OR if you’re more concerned with utility than aesthetics, just label the cardboard boxes directly like in the photo below OR make it a fun and educational art project for the kids! Give them construction paper, markers, glue/tape, and scissors (Safety note: Make sure the children are old enough, capable enough, and responsible enough to use scissors safely. Always make sure you are nearby to supervise the use of scissors.)

Crafts: For example, cut out cardboard letters for an ELA fun and educational activity

OR make fish, making a hole in each fish’s mouth so that the kiddos can first decorate the fish and then go fishing with a cardboard hook. The fish should be three-dimensional rather than one so that they are easier to catch. Instead of cutting out the fish from the cardboard, use the entire box as the fish and just cut a hole in it large enough for the hook to go in and small enough for the hook to not fall out as easily. This activity includes art and motor skill development.

OR create some other awesome thing.

Giant stacking rectangles, which are like stacking cups, bigger boxes on the bottom and smaller boxes on top. You can also reverse this process and nest the boxes for easy space-saving storage. Once again, the children can decorate the boxes. This activity includes art, math (sizes and shapes; what fits in what; which boxes have more volume), spatial awareness development, and science/problem solving (investigate different ways the boxes can stack, which way is more stable – big on bottom or little on bottom, how can we compress the boxes into the smallest amount of space when storing them) You can also decorate the boxes and/or put toys/dolls on them to populate your “skyscraper.”

Big blocks. Use empty cereal, Graham cracker, movie theater candy, or nerds boxes for big, medium, small, or tiny blocks, respectively. Cardboard blocks cost $ if you order them on the internet or buy them in a store, so why not make your own personalized blocks by putting colorful patterned duct tape over the used boxes or using construction paper, markers, and crayons to make it an art project for the kiddos? This activity also keeps children occupied for quite a while and is recurring. More free time for us! Usually, if you buy the same candy, cracker, and cereal boxes, you will quickly accumulate blocks of the same sizes and shapes. Soon you will have a collection of the coolest blocks on the block.

Book Organizers: Use the triangular shaped boxes that squeezy packs/baby food pouches come in to sort books by size/type; you can also cut regular boxes diagonally to achieve the same effect. This activity touches on math and organizational skills. It can also be an art project to decorate the outside.

As you can see, REusing things that would either end up being REcycled or being thrown away not only saves the planet, but also saves money and keeps the kids occupied with fun and engaging educational activities while hopefully you get to enjoy some me time to keep our sanity. Let’s save the planet and our sanity one REpurposed project at a time.

Best: REduce

Reducing waste is the best because the waste is never created in the first place. Waste can mean waste of space, waste of energy, or waste of water.

REduce the number of packing boxes arriving by buying in bulk or buying multiple items at once. Then, your items will arrive in only one box rather than several. One example of this is using Amazon delivery day to have all the items ordered in a week delivered in one package once a week. Side note: if you use smile.amazon.com, Amazon will donate a percentage of their profit to a charity of your choice. Every little bit adds up.

REduce the number of paper towels by using cloth towels to wipe up spills, cloth napkins to wipe messy faces, and rags to clean up big messes made by little messmakers.

REduce the number of trees cut down by buying bamboo toilet paper and paper towels. Bamboo is a “replenishable resource, Bamboo regenerates to full mass in six months. It also yields 15 times more material than trees despite being re-harvested every three years. Incidentally, this continuous turnover of a bamboo grove does not damage the plant system or the surrounding environment.” Source: see note 1 below. You can order bamboo tissues, toilet paper, and paper towels to be delivered to your doorstep from https://www.grove.co. You can also buy caboo bamboo toilet paper from Costco.

REduce the number of plastic bottles by using refillable water bottles, which are more aesthetically-pleasing and personalized than plastic bottles anyway. Refillable stainless steel, aluminum or BPA-free plastic bottles are healthier because one-use plastic bottles often have BPA in them, which can leach into the water, especially when heated. (Think of a plastic water bottle in your car during the heat of a Texas summer =  lots of leached BPA)

REduce the number of diapers in the landfills by trying cloth diapering (at least at home). I have to be honest though – I haven’t done this one yet.

REduce the amount of water you use by turning off the faucet when you are not actively using it. For example, you can turn the water off between the time when you wet your toothbrush and when you rinse your toothbrush. If you enjoy taking long showers like I do, consider taking an extra long bath instead. You can reflect on how much good you’re doing for our planet while you slowly soak and relax.

Don’t worry about doing all of these unless you are a RE guru. Just start with one manageable task, and then move on to two or more if you can. Every bit counts. For example, if you choose to switch to refillable water bottles, which is good for both your health and our planet’s health, you are saving 365 disposable plastic bottles a year if only you are drinking only one bottle a day not to mention the money it costs to buy water in disposable plastic water bottles. I’m pretty sure those bottles couldn’t even fit in my car. If your whole family drinks only one bottle a day per person, that’s 730 saved for a family of two, 1095 for a family of three, 1460 for a family of four, and so on. If more than one family decides to do this, it will add up very quickly and save space in landfills or otherwise wasted energy if you decide to recycle the bottles.

Remember that it is best to REduce waste in the first place. It is better to REuse than to REcycle ♻️ because that saves the energy required to REcycle. Saving energy saves the planet because the production of energy can cause pollution. Lastly, please do good for our planet by taking the time to REcycle REcyclables that haven’t been REduced and REused, keeping in mind what things are REcyclable and what things are not.

In short: REduce waste. REuse creatively. REcycle the rest.


1 Bamboo as a replenishable substitute for wood: http://www.raproducts.com/blog/from-paper-to-furniture-bamboo-almost-does-it-all

2 Big-scale art to inspire the littles: https://www.oddee.com/item_96860.aspx

3 Ideas for crafts made from recyclables: https://www.rubbishplease.co.uk/blog/21-coolest-kids-toys-can-make-recycled-materials-part-2/

4 More ideas (click on the first pictures and then look through the rest of the pictures for a faster read): https://images.app.goo.gl/UBsQNUnU21nxux6y8


5 Simple machines for kids: https://kodokids.com/introducing-simple-machines-low-tech-tools/

6 History of simple machines for history buffs:  https://www.livescience.com/49106-simple-machines.html

About the Author

Faith was born in New Hampshire and raised in Arlington, Texas. She is a certified math teacher in Texas for grades 7-12 and taught 9th and 10th grade math for a year before becoming a “stay-at-home” mom who does anything but stay at home. She has a son in the purple playgroup and a daughter in both the red and the green playgroups. She enjoys spending time with her husband and kids, reading (both alone and to her kids), playing board games, practicing her ninja-skills, and being outdoors.

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