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How Do We Create the Sustainable Leaders That We Need? Start by Inspiring Kids to Recycle

Image credit: Gallery Hip

Survey data indicates that, compared to older generations, younger generations are more supportive of environmental legislation and the notion that global climate change is the result of human activity, yet are simultaneously less likely to recycle or recognize the benefits of recycling. This is a disparity we should all be concerned with, as these are the individuals that will one day become our future social entrepreneurs, conscious consumers, and environmental activists. Instilling a sustainable mindset at an early age is key, but how exactly do we motivate younger individuals to care about things such as recycling and recyclable packaging?

Fortunately enough, and because sustainability has become a strong societal focus during the past decade or so, many corporations and non-profit organizations have taken it upon themselves to engage children and teens about recycling, the environment, and sustainable development. Even major consumer products companies are establishing education programs and awareness initiatives, sometimes even incentivizing the recycling process itself in an effort to better engage our next generation of sustainable thinkers and innovators.

PepsiCo Recycle Rally, one of the largest and most successful school-based recycling initiatives in the country, raises awareness of the importance of recycling in hundreds of elementary, middle and high schools. The program motivates K-12 teachers and students to become more sustainably minded recyclers by granting schools access to educational tools, lesson plans and promotions. Competitions and contests throughout the year incentivize the collection of recyclables such as beverage cans and bottles, giving participants the chance to win cash and other prizes for their school. In addition to cleaning up communities and the environment, students participating in Recycle Rally are leading the way to help recycle for nature and veterans. Every bottle and can recycled in the program supports PepsiCo’s initiative with The Nature Conservancy and The Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities.

Geared more specifically to elementary schools, Carton 2 Garden is another great recycling initiative that challenges teachers and students to creatively repurpose milk and juice cartons by integrating them into a school garden. Eliminating packaging waste becomes the means for students to win money for their school, offering them a completely new perspective on what they normally see as “garbage.” And while the program is focused on raising awareness for recyclable and sustainable packaging, it also provides teachers with educational materials about gardening and growing plants. 

Environmental education has been a major component of my company’s business model since its inception. Apart from offering educators full curricula on a variety of academic subjects related to the environment, TerraCycle offers Brigade programs that allow students and faculty to collect traditionally non-recyclable packaging waste in their schools and send it to us for recycling. We can then upcycle the waste into products such as backpacks and pencil cases, or recycle it into plastic pellets and other products. Participating schools also earn points for each piece of waste they collect, which can be redeemed for upcycled products or cash donations for their school or a non-profit organization.

What about engaging college-aged students at their schools? The GameDay Recycling Challenge allows students at major universities across the country to compete with other schools within their athletic conference. Participating schools keep track of the organic waste, recyclables, and other waste generated within stadiums and during sporting events. Various awards are given based on a school’s recycling rate, greenhouse gas reductions, the amount of waste diverted from landfills, and the volume of food donated and organic materials composted. Attendance at these events is also taken into consideration, motivating the schools to further engage the campus community.

If we want to increase recycling rates and overcome many of our long-term sustainability and environmental concerns, we need to get kids in school more excited about recycling, and sustainable industry as a whole. Younger generations are our next social activists, politicians, and innovative entrepreneurs, after all. To ensure they develop into the future sustainable leaders that we need, we have to begin engaging them at an early age.


Tom Szaky is founder and CEO of TerraCycle Inc., a leader in eco-capitalism and upcycling. In 2001, Tom left Princeton University as a freshman to launch a worm-poop-based fertilizer company. In 2007, the company expanded to start collecting difficult-to-recycle… [Read more about Tom Szaky]


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