Re-thinking Trash

Re-thinking Trash

Re-thinking Trash with Students!

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Getting youth—and anyone—to reconsider their trash can be difficult, but that’s what Trash for Peace, a Portland-based nonprofit, does.
The organization aims to help people reduce waste through functional art by using the items we consider trash to create recycling bins, planters, furniture and many other useful things. The group often partners with schools and works with students of all ages, and they’ve come up with plenty of unique lessons to engage the young and old alike.

by Laura Kutner

Reusing waste is often a better alternative to recycling; it uses less energy and costs less money. The first step to teaching students to make reuse a part of daily life is to demonstrate the impact the things we call waste have on the environment when they end up in landfills, as well as how those items might be useful. Some pretty staggering statistics about waste will certainly grab attention—for example, every week half a billion plastic water bottles are purchased in the United States, enough to circle the globe five times—and once students are paying attention they can learn practical ways to help reduce that waste.

Eternal Trash Activity

A fun introductory activity for waste reduction involves discussing how long it takes different types of “trash” to decompose. This discussion can cover how the decomposition process works, touching on the impacts of heat, moisture and microorganisms on how long it takes something to break down. Additionally, this is often a good time to discuss how the school handles trash and how students deal with trash and recycling at home.

Then students can go outside and make a list of trash found around the school. Afterward, the lists can be compiled into one large list and broken down into categories (like paper, plastic, etc.) on the chalkboard. Finally, the decomposition times of each type of trash can be listed next to the found items. A banana peel, for example, takes three weeks to decompose, while a plastic bag takes 10 to 20 years. (A more extensive list of decomposition times can be found in Trash for Peace’s lesson plans:

This exercise can lead to further discussion about the implications of this trash: What types of trash are most common? What kinds will still be around a century from now? This lesson opens the door for many waste-reducing activities, too. Now that students have a better understanding of how much trash exists and how long it will exist, finding ways to reuse common types of trash can have a more significant impact on the way they think about waste.

Hands-On Reuse Exercises

Two activities that Trash for Peace often performs with younger students fit well into science classes, particularly when students are learning about biology and plants. The first is turning tin cans into planters, which is a fun project for at school or at home. Tin cans make ideal planters because it’s easy to poke holes in the bottoms of them for drainage and they block out sunlight, protecting plants’ roots. Plus, tin cans are easy to obtain since almost everyone buys canned goods. The second activity, also related to plants, is turning plastic clamshells into mini-terrariums. The clamshells—like the clear, plastic kind used to hold strawberries or other produce—effectively let in sun while also holding in moisture, allowing seeds to sprout. The clamshells can also easily be set on classroom windowsills without taking up too much space. Either of these activities lets students turn something they would normally throw in the trash or recycling bin into a useful item. Because the tin cans and clamshells are used to grow plants, they won’t quickly be forgotten about or throw away like other kinds of reuse craft projects that aren’t as practical.

For teachers and others interested in hands-on activities related to waste reduction, Trash for Peace offers a variety of lesson plans ( on their website. They also have a manual ( for how to make a recycling bin from plastic bottles and other reused materials, and bin building kits are available through their website. Building a recycling bin can be especially effective for teaching about plastic waste reduction, since kids will be responsible for collecting the plastic bottles needed to construct the bin. Once constructed, the bin serves as a functional piece of art or educational tool for change, reminding everyone who uses it of the importance of thinking about trash—where it goes, and what it does to our environment—before it is tossed, and that just because a plastic bottle might look like trash, doesn’t mean it no longer has any value.

Trash for Peace’s History and Programming

Trash for Peace was established as a 501c3 nonprofit in Portland, Ore. in 2012. The organization’s founder, Laura Kutner, served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala where she learned firsthand the impact trash can have on communities. One rural community where she lived experienced flooding after a tropical storm, and trash carried to the town by a river exacerbated the flooding.  In another community where Laura lived, there was a great deal of trash littering the village, and subsequently, Laura helped make some of that trash useful by organizing the construction of a school using plastic bottles as part of the walls. When she returned to the U.S., she wanted to continue educating about the importance of reducing and reusing waste, and found an incredible team of people to help create what Trash for Peace is today.

The nonprofit currently has three types of programming:

• programs for schools,

• programs for youth empowerment, and

• programs for businesses including audits and team-building exercises.

At elementary, middle and high schools, Trash for Peace leads recycle bin-building exercises and helps construct garden beds (and other reused garden-related items like those explained above), all out of repurposed materials, or “trash.” These programs serve to bring art and construction activities back into classrooms as well.

They also teach leadership, team-building, and vocational skills to youth by instructing them on how to build the recycle bins and other structures, all using repurposed materials.  They recently started a zero-waste cooking class series to a local group of teenage boys. The classes help the participants learn to make healthy eating choices, gain cooking skills and understand how eating does not need to involve waste. Students learn about how the cooking process itself can involve less waste, as well as the impact of the packaging waste associated with many fast foods. Trash for Peace also helps coordinate a zero-waste, pop-up coffee shop where youth learn valuable business skills. The café raises awareness about the amount of waste typically associated with these types of businesses, too (and how it’s not always necessary waste). Finally, Trash for Peace performs waste audits for businesses, teaching them how to most effectively reduce waste, as well as leads events for businesses where they can have their employees do fun, hands-on team-building activities related to waste reduction.

Trash for Peace recycling bins have found their way into schools and workplaces across the country, as well as in Bulgaria and Costa Rica. The organization is always working on new bin designs that find new ways to make trash useful. Currently, they partner with over 30 schools and 20 business and nonprofit organizations, and have built over 55 recycle bins, in addition to many other piece of functional art.

For more information about Trash for Peace’s programming, lesson plans and current events, visit their website (, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter!