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Beyond cardboard and cans - hardcore recycling at schools

Updated on July 26, 2012

Note: All text and photos are property of the author and cannot be reused without permission.

While styrofoam packing peanuts are accepted for reuse at most shipping stores, it may be harder to find a place that recycles larger pieces.
While styrofoam packing peanuts are accepted for reuse at most shipping stores, it may be harder to find a place that recycles larger pieces. | Source

Most communities now make it relatively easy to recycle paper, cardboard, cans, and bottles, but there are other items that are less commonly recycled, and some of them, like batteries, can be toxic when placed in landfills. Your school can offer services to parents, teachers, staff, or even your wider community, safely collecting these items and transporting them or sending them to the appropriate location. Doing so will also bring your school closer to the goal of zero-waste and guide kids towards thinking about how the choices they make affect the earth. And as an added bonus, you might be able to earn a little extra money to add to the school budget.

Think carefully about which items you will collect, as some can be messy or even dangerous (think leaky batteries or broken lightbulbs). Start small, with one or two items. Advertise your new program in your email newsletter or at back-to-school night. Before you collect any items, be sure that you have location to take them where they will be disposed of appropriately, reused, or recycled.

At our school, we set up a center with clearly-marked bins where folks can leave various smaller items. It is important that at least one person be in charge of monitoring the bins and handling or delegating recycling duties. We keep a log of all items that we recycle – our kids’ green club weighs the batteries before we take them in, and we keep a count of cell phones and light bulbs. This is useful in case we want to apply for grants or awards in the future. It also helps keep track of our efforts to see what are the most commonly collected items.


Cell phones – There are many services that will give you money for used cell phones, smart phones, and in some cases, other hand-held electronics. It’s important to note what items the company accepts and review their mailing procedures and reimbursement policies. Our school uses GRC Recycling ( They request you send a minimum of ten phones at a time; they provide pre-paid mailing labels; but they do not accept phone accessories like chargers. It’s a little known fact that cell phones use the element Coltan, only found in the Congo, which is unfortunately the location of one of the few habitats for the endangered mountain gorilla. Recycling phones reduces the need for this chemical. It also keeps metals and other chemicals used in cell phones out of landfills.

Terracycle ( – This innovative company creates new products from many otherwise non-recyclable items and offers a nominal reimbursement, providing pre-paid mailing labels. Juice pouches, candy wrappers, chip bags, tape dispensers, and other items find new lives as purses, pencil cases, cork boards, clipboards, and other products. The company offers a few pennies each for some items. There are some drawbacks – we chose to stop collecting juice pouches because it was too messy (smelly) and time-consuming. Also, we were concerned that we would be promoting the use of these essentially non-recyclable materials, when there are more sustainable options out there. Some schools do find it worthwhile.

Printer cartridges – As with cell phones, there are many companies that collect and offer money or credit for ink and toner cartridges. Our school uses a local service, which picks up the items at our school then sends us a reimbursement check. Cartridges are refilled and resold.

Paper and cardboard – Some companies will pick up paper and cardboard and pay your school for them (or at least pick it up for free). If your school doesn’t have curbside pickup, this can be a really good option.

Home Depot, IKEA, and your local hazardous waste facility will accept CFL's.
Home Depot, IKEA, and your local hazardous waste facility will accept CFL's. | Source
Go to to find a retailer that will send lightly used crocs to new homes in impoverished countries.
Go to to find a retailer that will send lightly used crocs to new homes in impoverished countries. | Source

Hazardous waste and recycling

Batteries – Batteries should not be thrown into the garbage, as the acids and heavy metals in them will leach out into the soil and groundwater. Most of the components in batteries can be recycled, which reduces the need for mining. Home Depot, IKEA, and Batteries Plus all take batteries for recycling, and your City may also have a hazardous waste facility that will accept items from households they serve.

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFL’s) – These lamps have four times the amount of mercury found in standard incandescent bulbs, so they should be handled carefully and ideally not thrown into the trash. We provide small paper sacks and request that bulbs be placed inside to minimize breakage. Risks are minimal, but some schools choose not to handle these, due to the chemicals and to the possibility of broken glass. IKEA, Home Depot, and your city’s hazardous waste facility will take these.

Electronics – Used computers, monitors, fax machines, and other electronics have metals that can be reused and which shouldn’t go into the landfill. While you probably don’t want to collect these on an ongoing basis, you might consider an electronics recycling drive for Earth Day or during your school carnival or other major event. You may have to research where you can take these items. In our city, Goodwill has agreed to accept these thanks to the sponsorship of a major computer provider located here.

Plastic bags – Most grocery stores will collect these. Our school opted not to accept them, since it’s easy for people to take them there themselves and because we felt that we didn’t want to encourage the use of plastic carrier bags, but it is an option. Plastic bags should NOT go in recycling bins, as they will get caught in machinery.

Metal hangers – Many dry cleaners will collect these for reuse. Usually they cannot be recycled in curbside bins. Scrap metal companies may also take them.

Styrofoam packing peanuts – Almost all packing stores welcome these, as reusing them saves them money. We request that folks take peanuts to stores themselves, but if you do accept them, you should ask that they be placed in bags, otherwise they can get very messy.

Styrofoam – Yes, there are some places that will recycle large Styrofoam packing pieces and coolers. There aren’t many. Austin, a city of over a million people, has one facility that has accepted Styrofoam from the public for recycling, though it recently stopped doing so. The biggest problem with collecting Styrofoam is that many people recycle food containers, and unless they’re clean, things can get messy really fast. That said, because it is difficult for people to recycle Styrofoam, we found it to be a valuable service to our community. I devised a systems with huge (roughly 5’x5’) stretchy fabric bags with drawstrings. One bag was hung on a wall outside the back door, and when it was full, I pulled it together and crammed it in my hatchback, replacing the full one with a second empty one. This really simplified collection. Because it is so bulky, Styrofoam can be a challenge.

Crocs – Hold a drive to collect used crocs sandals that are still in good condition. They can either be swapped with other students’ or sent to crocscares, a program that refurbishes them and donates them to people who need shoes in impoverished countries (see for places near you that will receive them).

Plastic nursery pots – If your city won’t accept these for recycling, many nurseries will accept and reuse them as this saves them money. Check to make sure you have a source before you start collecting.

Reuse items and save money with a book or toy swap.
Reuse items and save money with a book or toy swap. | Source

Other reusable, recyclable items

Halloween pumpkins – Okay, this technically isn’t recycling, but you can collect Halloween pumpkins to add to your school compost pile, or donate to a local chicken farm or compost company.

Sports equipment, toys, books – This is reuse, rather than recycling, but it’s still a useful service to offer your school community. Hold a swap meet, where folks can bring lightly used items to donate, then select new ones. Advertise that anything left after the meet will be used by the school (books can go to teachers or the library, for example) or donated to a local charity. You can set up tables or just lay blankets out on the grass. One person will need to be responsible for collecting and donating the surplus.

Offer your school compost pile as a home for leftover halloween pumpkins.
Offer your school compost pile as a home for leftover halloween pumpkins. | Source

Shift your thinking to recognize that much of what has traditionally been considered trash can be reused, recycled, or upcycled into something new. It would be a rare school that would follow all of these suggestions, but even offering to handle one or two teaches kids to think about the effects their refuse has on the environment and whether there are better ways to repurpose or dispose of it.


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