Trash Can Quiz

Here’s an activity you can do with a classroom, or with your own kids, based on a project from Environmental Defense. The “Trash Can Quiz” shows how much you know about the treasures we throw away, and helps kids understand the “materials flow” of many products we use, from the natural resource through manufacturing and disposal. Happy reducing, re-using, recycling, and rotting! And remember, we cannot consume our way to sustainability – reducing and re-using are crucial, not just recycling. Bring in a small garbage can filled with typical items thrown away: plastic water bottle, soda can, office paper, banana peel, tin can, leaves or grass clippings, newspaper. Call on students one at a time to come up, close their eyes (or blindfold), reach in and pick out a treasure…. then surprise them with these amazing statistics (below) by asking a series of questions about how much we throw away in the U.S., how much recycling could save, and what can be made from recycled materials. These statistics are national for the U.S. and are from a variety of years (1990’s and beyond). You can often go to your local waste management authority’s website and get localized statistics and information for your area. For each item chosen by a student from the trash can, ask questions like the following: What is it? (a can, a bottle, a piece of paper, etc.) What is it made of? (glass, metal, etc.) What resources are used to make this? (glass is made from sand, paper is made from trees, plastic is made from oil, cans are made from aluminum that is made from bauxite, etc.) Where does this resource come from? (sand comes from desert, rivers; trees for paper come from forests in US, Canada, Indonesia, Amazon; oil comes from Alaska, South America, Africa, Texas, Middle East; etc.) How much of this item do you think Americans use? (see the statistics below) Can this item be re-used? Can it be recycled? Can it be rotted? Can you make the same thing out of the recycled item – is it a closed loop? (a new bottle can be made from recycled glass; a new soda-can can be made from recycled aluminum; a new plastic bottle CANNOT be made from recycled plastic, but other plastic items like carpet, fleece jackets, or plastic lumber can be made from recycled plastic bottles; new paper can be made from recycled paper; new soil can be made from composted banana, etc.) How much could we save if this item were recycled, re-used, or rotted? (see statistics below) Have fun with this! Express amazement about the amount of resources we use and how much we can save. Ask students if they can imagine these amounts. Ask if they know how to express some of these very large numbers. Ask them what they think. GLASS BOTTLES We throw away enough glass bottles and jars to fill two TransAmerica (the pyramid building in San Francisco) buildings every two weeks. Glass never wears out — it can be recycled forever. We save more than a ton of resources for every ton of glass recycled — 1,330 pounds of sand, 433 pounds of soda ash, 433 pounds of limestone, and 151 pounds of feldspar. A ton of glass produced from raw materials created 384 pounds of mining waste. Using 50% recycled glass cuts it by about 75%. ALUMINUM CANS American consumers and industry throw away enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial airfleet every three months. Aluminum smelting requires A LOT of energy. Making a new can from recycled aluminum can save up to 95% of the energy required compared to “virgin” aluminum (made from all new resources). Aluminum recycling rates have dropped from a high of 65% and are now about 63%. Americans use about 350 aluminum cans per person per year. In 2001, Americans did not recycle 51 billion cans. Recycling 1 aluminum can saves enough energy to run a laptop computer for 4 hours. In the U.S., we throw away cans representing about 200 billion hours of electricity – that’s a lot of power plants! PLASTIC BOTTLES AND PLASTIC BAGS Americans go through 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour, only a small percentage of which are recycled. In 2002, 4-5 trillion plastic bags were used globally. Americans throw out 100 billion plastic bags per year, only about 0.6% of the bags are recycled. Plastic can be recycled to make fleece fabric, carpet, sleeping bags, artificial lumber, and other products. The City of San Francisco passed a law banning the use of plastic grocery bags, to be phased in over the next few years. PAPER Every week more than 500,000 trees are used to produce the two-thirds of newspapers that are never recycled. In the U.S. on average, we use 730 pounds of paper per person per year. In Japan the average is 500 lbs/person/year; in India the average is about 10 lbs/person/year. In the U.S., this amounts to about 31.5 million tons of printing and writing paper per year, requiring about 535 million trees (most from virgin fibr) and 12 billion gallons of oil for its manufacturing. The U.S. Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. Source: The Green Schools Initiative
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