Many people are familiar with the concept of recycling—taking something used and using it again in a different form, like running shoes being used to make a track. Upcycling is a similar idea, except the item being used again does not lose its form when it becomes a new product. Instead of throwing away candy wrappers, for example, they can be upcycled and used to make kites, picture frames, bracelets, even duffel bags. Like recycling, upcycling prevents products from ending up in landfills, but it also eliminates a portion of the energy that recycling would require. For example, when glass and plastic are recycled, it takes some form of energy to melt them down and then turn them into something new. Upcycling keeps unnecessary waste out of our landfills, but it also presents many opportunities for fun arts and crafts projects for individuals, families, and in classrooms!


Recycling is one of the easiest initiatives to implement in your classroom. As a teacher you go through an abundance of paper products among other recyclable items. Instead of throwing your paper waste in a trash can, set out a recycling bin instead. Most communities have recycling services or a recycling drop-off nearby. It’s important to recycle in the classroom for two main reasons. First, you’re making a bigger impact on the environment than you think. �?It takes two fifteen-year-old trees to produce just one box of paper. Recycling one ton of paper, on the other hand, saves 17 trees, two barrels of oil (equivalent to 1,260 miles of fuel), 4,100 kilowatts of energy (could power a home for six months), 3.2 cubic yards of landfill space, and 60 pounds of air pollution. It’s easy to just throw old lesson plans in the trash, but sending them off for recycling is just one step to really making a difference. Additionally, recycling sets a good example for your students. If you educate them about the importance of recycling, they will take that information home and hopefully spark a change in their household. You can even start a classroom challenge or competition for recycling the most paper, plastic, and glass!


With food companies relying more heavily on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), pesticides, and long-distance shipping operations, local and individual gardening is becoming even more beneficial to your health, your wallet, and the environment. For these reasons, gardening is a perfect initiative to introduce in your classroom. Whether you begin by growing just a few herbs in your window or you plant a whole outdoor garden, your students will experience and learn more than they ever could from a textbook. They will both make a real connection with the food they are eating, but you can also teach them the science behind food production, including the health benefits and consequences of different types of farming. Many schools are implementing gardening programs in their curriculum, some as extensive as Edible Schoolyard, which seeks to provide free school lunches from the food the students and teachers grow together. No matter the extent of your gardening initiative, your students’ excitement at sharing a snack they grew together will help them remember and really care about what you’ve taught them.

In the Classroom

  • Raise butterflies to encourage environmentally-friendly thinking.
  • Use sanitary leftover disposable items to create “upcycling” art projects.
  • Start energy room checks—at the end of the day, have students check the room for anything that could be wasting energy.
  • Teach outside on nice days.
  • Grow plants in the classroom.
  • Use natural light whenever possible.
  • Teach students to use both sides of the paper.
  • Teach students the science behind composting and recycling.

For Your School

  • Have recycling bins available alongside trash bins.
  • Get permission from the school to start a compost pile.
  • Encourage your school to become “idle-free”—parents waiting to pick up their children must turn their engines off. This helps with pollutants in the air and keeps gas in the parents’ gas tanks.

More Ideas

  • Bring handmade cleaning supplies from home.
  • Buy environmentally-friendly supplies.
  • Send out grades online.
  • Minimize supply use.
  • Adopt a rainforest or endangered animal as a class.
  • Collectively determine your classroom’s carbon footprint.


Composting can be very beneficial in that it keeps organic, useful matter out of landfills, and also can be used to greatly improve soil quality and thus the quality of the food grown with the composted matter. The compost-enriched soil provides nutrients that help plants grow, helps reduce erosion, alleviates soil compaction, and controls disease and pest infestation in plants. You as a teacher can educate your students about the benefits of composting, or you could go a step further and try to implement a composting initiative in your school’s cafeteria. The composted organic material—mostly food, but also other materials like compostable paper products—can be used to fertilize the school’s lawn or even gardens. In large enough operations, compost can also be sold for a profit, so your school could be green while earning green.

Conserve Supplies

Teachers can often find themselves throwing out (or even recycling) mounds of paper each week, especially when you’re incorporating arts and crafts into your curriculum. But there are creative ways you can avoid having to discard this paper at all. One option is to have a bin of partially used construction paper that another student might be able to use in another project. Even for older students, you can encourage them to print their papers on the backside of used pages. Beyond reusing, you can also be mindful of the things you use the first time. To conserve paper, you might choose to print two-sided, and to only print the most necessary documents. Conserving goes much further than just paper, though. You should also make the most of everything you use, encouraging students to use all the glue or paint in a container before sending it to the recycling bin or even sharpening the crayons and using them up before opening a new box. Every bit of waste matters, and you can reduce waste by using any supply to its full extent—and recycling or reusing it after that.


Need to energize your students about conservation? Adopt an endangered animal as a classroom! Having an animal at the Zoo gives your students a way to feel personally connected to wildlife and gain a deeper understanding of the importance of contributing to a healthy planet. Additionally, it presents new ways to make the information in the classroom especially realistic for your students. Your adoption stretches beyond the classroom benefits too. Adopting an animal helps the Zoo to provide care for the animal whom you have adopted.

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