Even before COVID-19 changed the education landscape, Peter Van Houten, general manager at Bob’s Metals, Inc. in Portland, Ore., was using virtual tools to teach the value of recycling. With the help of the FaceTime app, he conducted a virtual tour of his company’s scrapyard for his daughter’s elementary school-aged students. “The kids got really excited, and there were so many questions that came up,” he recalls. Seated in an auditorium, the students got to watch recycling in action and how objects can turn into other products and materials for future use.

Whether it’s running a virtual tour or partnering with JASON Learning to develop a nationwide recycling curriculum for K-12 students, Van Houten is interested in new, creative ways to tell society the story of recycling. He’s not alone. Recyclers across the country are pursing thoughtful, creative ways to engage with their communities to highlight the importance of recycling.

Some recyclers, like Aaron Gaby, general manager of Chicago-based Gaby Iron & Metal Co., team up with local communities to showcase the science behind recycling. Gaby’s company joined the Homewood Science Center’s “PopUp Science” program, which is an interactive learning experience for students. Gaby worked with the center to show students the connection between recycling and science. “I’ve brought samples of everything from crushed cars, to bales of aluminum cans, and broken down components of computers,” Gaby recalls. He worked with local analyzer companies to help highlight the chemistry and the science behind the objects. “We break it down and show kids this is aluminum but there are different grades of aluminum and different grades of brass and alloys.”

Gaby’s interested in showing students how the concepts they’re learning in class can be applied to real-life objects in front of them. After all, that’s been his personal experience as well. “I tell kids that when I was growing up and going to school, the periodic table of elements seemed like such a faraway concept that I’d never use. Now 20 to 30 years later in the scrap business, I refer to my periodic table fairly often.” During the program, he showed students how a piece of metal can be analyzed and that the materials in the metal come from the periodic table of elements hanging in their classrooms.

For recyclers like Brandi Harleaux, chief operations officer at Houston-based South Post Oak Recycling Center, community engagement was always an integral part of her company. When her father started the company, he gave back to the community by purchasing jerseys or t-shirts for the local football leagues and helping church members attend leadership programs. Once Harleaux stepped in, she helped cultivate that engagement, by re-shaping the spirit and intentional commitment to the Houston community with a few more recycling awareness outreach efforts. For her, community engagement is about building relationships with local leaders. “That way, if there is a problem or challenge, we get a call and people come to us directly. Similarly, if there is a partnership opportunity, the city council contacts me about participating.”

Not only has her company participated in local backpack drives and provided schools with necessary supplies, but she’s also worked to get her community excited about JASON Learning. She recalls attending events with local leaders, where business owners, school principals, pastors, and even the police chief shared what was going on in their respective businesses. Harleaux updated everyone about the recycling industry but wanted to do more. “I wanted to figure out what additional value I could bring, so I started sharing the tools and resources from JASON Learning with educators from charter schools and private schools,” she says.

Over the summer, she served as a presenter and panelist at JASON Learning’s Virtual National Conference 2020. “I worked with ISRI to pull together some presentations about the recycling lifecycle and the varieties of commodities. For me, that’s another way to give back, it has a broader reach, it is complimentary to educate teachers about recycling so they understand its value.”

COVID-19 hasn’t stopped recyclers’ commitments to their communities. Van Houten notes how JASON Learning adjusted its curriculum to respond to educators’ changing needs during the pandemic. “We told [JASON Learning] that we need to readapt the software so it’s easier for educators to use. Now JASON offers a “grab-and-go” curriculum—an online version of their software, and we’re also incorporating new videos for them.” Van Houten is also considering virtual tours or making short videos highlighting a specific activity in the scrapyard. “Teachers can show those videos to their students of what it’s like to shred something, or how Christmas lights are recycled, or how a scrapyard turns stained glass into cubes.”

Harleaux’s company has been able to continue participating in community engagement while implementing the necessary safety protocols. “We’re taking safety precautions,” she says. “Using hand sanitizers, practicing social distancing, and everyone’s wearing a mask.” Her company was able to participate in the local holiday lights recycling drive during the 2020 holiday season, with the addition of the necessary safety measures.

Gaby has a similar experience. While the pandemic halted his company’s participation in “PopUp Science,” the company continued to safely participate in local recycling drives. Participating companies like Gaby’s helped ensure the drives were safe for volunteers and local residents. “Residents can pull up and stay in their vehicles,” says Gaby. Residents simply open their trunk and volunteers (wearing masks) come to remove the items for donation. “Residents don’t need to get out of their cars and figure out where to go, volunteers come to them,” he says. He notes that the volunteers are safely spaced out and everyone gets their own station or task.

 

Van Houten is looking forward to the spring for new engagement opportunities. Before COVID-19, he had partnered with local community colleges to develop a certificate program where students could intern at a local scrapyard and develop the necessary skills to enter the recycling industry. While the program is now at a standstill, Van Houten wants to get the program off the ground. “[The program] will include material identification, material handing operation, industrial vehicle operation, and how to drive a forklift, etc…students will have the safety background and basic information so any yard could pick them up and take them to the next level.”

Community engagement is an important way to demonstrate the essential nature of recycling both for the local community and for the planet. “It’s important to fundamentally understand ‘what is my footprint,’” says Harleaux, “To step back and consider where the recycling goes when it leaves my curb.” Gaby highlights the importance of showing people just how many things are recyclable beyond what fits in the bins. “There are so many recyclables that are bigger than the bin like lawn mowers, bicycles, and things the manufacturing companies produce…opening everyone’s mind to what’s recyclable helps reduce what’s going to landfills.”

Van Houten believes children are the instigators for these conversations about recycling and all it can entail. Not only are children a receptive and captive audience to learn the story of recycling but they bring those stories to the dinner table. “It starts a conversation around the table,” Van Houten says. “If we can make recycling exciting for children then it becomes a conversation that goes to the adults and helps them learn about the importance of recycling.”

To learn more about how recyclers engage with the community check out these sessions at ISRI2021, ISRI’s virtual convention, What Can We Gain From Being Local and Vocal on Tuesday, April 20, from 4:15-5:00 p.m. EDT, Policy + Community Engagement = Business Value on Thursday, April 22, from 4:15-5:00 p.m., and Youth Engagement: Educating Our Future On Recycling Is Essential, on Tuesday, April 27, from 2:45-3:30 p.m. EDT. Click here to register for ISRI2021.

Images: Misc photos from Homewood- Flossmoor Recyclepalooza event in 2020, courtesy of Gaby Iron & Metal Co.