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    Teachers for an Un-Trashed Planet

    Teachers making sustainability “normal” in their classrooms.

    Why I want to find a solution for plastic glue sticks

    Kindergarten students use so much glue for important and creative work, which can produce tons of plastic waste everyday. I avoid buying or using school-provided glue sticks and mostly use white liquid glue, reusing the little bottles over and over by refilling from a larger jug. Even that creates plastic trash, though, so I am after an even better solution that shows children that creativity and learning does not have to add to the plastic trash that will never go away. That’s why I am excited to use rice paste and flour paste in my classroom!

    why Im setting up a "last plastic marker box"

    I already make it a practice in my classroom not to use plastic markers. My students use only crayons, colored pencils, chalk, oil pastels, etc. to do their work. I also mostly use crayons and pencils for my teacher tasks, but I still have the markers I had when I earnestly started my low-waste classroom journey. As I use up the markers for paper and dry erase that I still have, I will place them in the “Last Plastic Marker” box to highlight and commemorate the end of markers in my class’s life! I plan to save that true Last Plastic Marker, mount it, and frame it. Hopefully that will not only keep me focused on my zero-waste path, but also be a conversation starter and inspiration sparker for my fellow teachers, students, and parents!

    What I use instead of disposables for parties

    When discussing parties with class parents, I always indicate that we will not use throw-away table cloths, plates, utensils, and decorations. Over time, I have developed a collection of reusable items (mostly purchased by classroom parents as donations for just one party – little did they know I would save them!) for each holiday that I provide my “party parents” with so they can use those when decorating for parties. When a certain holiday is missing certain items, I either request that in a reusable form as donations from parents or I purchase the reusable version myself.

    How I cut down on paper waste

    It made me so sad to see the trash cans in my classroom fill to the brim with paper towels and tissues every day! I was inspired by a practice I observed in my own child’s Waldorf preschool and began implementing it. Next to the sink, each student has a labeled hook on the wall with a little towel that they use to dry their hands after hand-washing. I made handkerchiefs by cutting up fabric (supplied by my seamstress neighbor), which they use to blow their noses then place in a wet/dry bag. Instead of paper towels at snack time and lunch we use cloth napkins, some of which I made and some of which I inherited from my parents’ big collection! To clean spills and wipe tables, we use my children’s old cloth diaper inserts – so absorbent! We call them “wiper-uppers.” All this cloth goes in the wet/dry bag and either I take it home to wash it or a parent volunteers to do so, depending on my class parents.

    How I avoid laminating

    Laminating school materials creates so much plastic waste and makes something a teacher was hoping to make last a school year or several school years actually last FOREVER! So, instead I glue the things I hope to reinforce to cardstock or cardboard that I get from cereal boxes and packages of all kinds. That way I am also reusing trash while making my teaching materials more sturdy for little hands. I haven’t laminated anything in a couple years and it’s been great!

    I dont use dry erase often, but when I do...

    I researched extensively for a solution to the dry erase marker problem - it seemed silly that all this plastic went into the production of something that was nearly impossible to recycle and that most people throw out at the end of every school year. Stabilo pencils replaced all my plastic markers (which I didn't just throw out, but donated to other teachers), and while there's surely a bit of a learning curve to using them, like anything else that's different, that's just it - it's DIFFERENT, not bad. I think so often people think they can't switch to something more sustainable because it's not what we're used to, but who says we have to do the same things we've been doing for years or decades if those things are hurting our planet? Change, especially when it comes to sustainability, can really slow us down and challenge our thinking - isn't that something we, as teachers and parents, want for our students?
    Along with the Stabilo pencils, I fill an up-cycled hand sanitizer bottle with water and squirt that onto secondhand cloth napkins to clean the white board, so that no raw materials are needed to clean up after our work.

    tree-friendly tissues that work for my classroom

    Instead of buying tissues from conventional brands (who aren't super tree-friendly), I purchase tissues from Who Gives a Crap because these tissues ARE tree-friendly (therefore you're not blowing your nose with one of the most precious resources on the planet).

    why i wont use spiral-bound Notebooks

    The only notebooks I've purchased in the last couple years are recycled and/or recyclable - so no wire spirals, no plastic covers, no glitter or paint or anything fancy at all. I really like the aesthetic of these simple notebooks, and I'm pretty sure you can buy them with blank, lined, or grid pages. The planner I bought for myself this year was the first planner I've ever bought that will actually be able to go back to the Earth some day (it's WSC's 2020 planner, and I just happened upon it before I even really knew they were all about sustainability), and I really wish this is a change I'd thought to make long before (especially since I've been using planners since I was in high school, and none of their covers are recyclable or compostable like the one I have now is).

    My solution for Flair pens + highlighters

    I've now invested in refillable metal pens with metal cartridges, and much like the recycled notebooks, these fit the clean aesthetic that I'm all about. Next year, with my teacher lead money, I plan to invest in more of these for my classroom. Speaking of pens, this reminds me - don't take the free pens! From the bank, from the CPA, from that one random business who wants you to remember your name and somehow that'll be accomplished by using their pens - no free pens from anyone. I know I personally, quite literally, have never needed one of these pens in my life, and they really just gunk up the junk drawer more than it already is. If people stop taking free junk, hopefully other people will stop making it. This is a quality versus quantity things, my friends.

    Other typical classroom supplies I've replaced over the years include plastic highlighters. I only supply my students with the peel-back highlighter pencils now and encourage colored pencils too.

    How I bring up sustainability with my students

    Propagating plants in the classroom (if you have lovely lighting like I am fortunate to have) is a guaranteed way to promote the topic of sustainability. Students often like to guess what I'm growing or ask how to start their own plants from pits or seeds, and for me it absolutely adds some calm to the atmosphere of the room.

    I often use sustainability as a topic of discussion through avenues like grammar bell work corrections (I can use any random sentence I want, so why not make it about something that matters?) and research projects, and if the topic comes up organically in class, we'll spend the time asking questions and pooling our knowledge and thinking through solutions together - and I don't mind for one moment that we've digressed from the irony in Macbeth or the rhetoric in an academic essay because I wish someone had explored the idea of sustainability with me when I was younger so that I could have made more conscious choices much sooner in my life. Ultimately, I have so much faith that future generations will do so much better than we have, and I want to be part of what makes the planet a better place for them and the Earth and every living thing on it.

    Why my classroom is zero waste

    • Once I got informed about plastic recycling not really happening, I didn’t want to participate in that anymore. So I shared it with my kids.

      Having done a zero waste classroom for the fifth year now- I feel it completely inspires all my students. 

      They can connect, they can make changes, see and measure it. They know the world has great challenges, but they are empowered daily with the desire to learn more and the ability to make a difference.

    my biggest challenges with a zero waste classroom

    • It’s not as much as you would expect. The trick is to get the kids onboard, to make it theirs. Make them feel like it’s reachable for them. It’s a matter of intention. You try to be intentional to make the least waste you can.

    • The kids embraced it on a deeper level, naturally, without a lot of force. They all wanted to do this, to do their part. Kids feel so powerless in the world. For them to know there’s a concrete way they can make a difference. That what they’re doing is worthy and they have a role in the world–they really want that. They’re so proud, so bold. They impress me so much.

    What I use instead of plastic pencil sharpeners

    • My students use small metal pencil sharpeners to sharpen their pencils during class. The shavings go into a pencil cup that sits on their shared desk area. It’s simple and quiet, and when the cup fills up, we put the shavings in the compost because we use unpainted pencils (paint is plastic!).

    What we do instead of back-to-school shopping

    I ask parents not to buy anything at the beginning of the year. We reuse what we have in the classroom, and parents can contribute as little as $5 (or more if they are able) to a fund I have set up through Wisdom Supply Co. so I can restock supplies as I need them Jacqueline Omania’s 5th Grade Class.

    Why I prefer colored pencils + crayons over plastic markers

    1. Their work is much neater and higher quality with colored pencils and crayons. Colored pencils and crayons require the students to use more fine motor control and offer so many more options for color variety and blending than markers do.
    2. I teach first and second grade, and the amount of plastic markers that we were going through was staggering. I would remind them all day long, but inevitably the caps got left off and markers dried out and were thrown away within a few weeks of opening a new pack.
    3. Crayons and colored pencils last SO much longer than even the best cared-for marker. Using markers just seemed like a poor use of money and resources that resulted in lower quality work.

    How I use masking tape to save pencils

    • I've started assigning each student a pencil with his or her name on it. The ownership that this creates has reduced our pencil consumption drastically. Prior to this practice, kids would break pencils, sharpen them down to nothing, chew on them, and tear out the erasers just to play with them. Now they know that I'm expecting them to take care of their pencils and we've learned about why it matters. The change was so easy and made such a huge difference this year that we'll never go back! I'd say we're easily using 1/10th of the pencils that we used to. Sure, kids still lose them or break them or chew on them occasionally, but overall their level of responsibility has been impressive and has had a huge impact on how many pencils we use.

    Why I stopped using the laminator

    I realized that most laminated game boards and letter cards don't really hold up that long under kid use anyway and that it would have a far smaller environmental impact to just remake what I needed out of paper or cardstock every few years. As for things that go on the wall, laminated posters often reflect a bright glare and are very hard for the kids to actually read. So by not laminating decorations and instructional posters I am having a positive environmental impact while making those resources more accessible to my students.

    Our real plates + cutlery prevent hundreds of disposables a year

    We have class parties that require plates and forks about 4 times a year. That meant we were throwing away 84 paper or plastic plates and 84 plastic forks or spoons a year. Multiply that by a decade of teaching, and that's 1,680 items in the landfill. So one year I went to our local nonprofit thrift store and bought a set of salad plates for my kids to use. Then a parent heard what we were doing and bought us a set of thrifted forks and spoons. Either a parent or I wash them at the classroom sink after each celebration. I was worried about the kids breaking them at first, and then I realized that they're probably eating on real plates at home and know how to do it ;). We haven't broken a single plate in the 10 years that I've had them! 

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    Tell us the sustainability practices you incorporate in your classroom or school and we'll share them on our site and social media pages!

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