How to Explain Recycling to Children

How to Explain Recycling to Children

Recycling isn’t just for adults, kids can get in on the action, too. Educating kids about the importance of recycling and protecting the environment is the first step in a life-long commitment to preserving the environment. When kids see the garbage truck go by, collecting trash from their homes, they may not understand that it doesn’t just disappear. As adults, we know it usually ends up in a landfill. But by teaching your kids about eco-friendly practices and using them in your home, they will understand not only where trash ends up, but how they can be a part of producing less waste.

This guide can help you talk to your kids about recycling and what it is, challenges, and how they can improve our recycling efforts every day.

What Is Recycling?

When your kids ask you what recycling is, it may be difficult to get all the terms right. The terms reduce, reuse, and recycle sound so similar and need to be explained in ways children can understand, in a way they can easily get the concepts and meaning of green practices. In the process, we can also educate ourselves about the relationship between these three words and their importance.

Reduce—this means to reduce how much waste a household produces during the family’s daily activities, work, play, and life in general.

Reuse—means to find ways to reuse some items we already have, instead of throwing them away. This includes toys, paper, electronics, and more. Reusing items saves the energy it costs to create a new one and reduces overall pollution.

Recycle—this is probably the most well-known term, but also needs to be explained correctly. Some things and materials may not be reused in their current form but can be turned back into raw material and used to make new items, such as kids' swim shorts. This way, we can waste less and help the environment.

Materials That Can Be Recycled

All kinds of things are recyclable. Some of the most common recyclable materials include:

  • Glass
  • Metals
  • Plastics
  • Electronics
  • Textiles
  • Computers and accessories
  • Newspapers and magazines
  • Cardboard

Recyclable items include soda and other aluminum cans, plastic water bottles and milk cartons, newspapers, cereal boxes, and old computers, depending on your local recycling program. Encourage your children to recycle as many items as they can. The more we recycle, the more we can guard the environment for our future and our children’s futures.

Why Is Recycling Important?

Recycling is important for a number of reasons, and it affects everyone’s future. Over 100 million Americans recycle. It’s one of the easiest ways to help the environment, and it can also help local economies. When you finish a box of cereal or a bottle of water, it is important to recycle for the following reasons.

  1. Helps save our wildlife and preserve natural resources. Some garbage in landfills can take more than a hundred years to break down. Recycling paper helps reduce the number of trees we need to cut down, which helps preserve the places where wildlife lives.
  2. Reduces pollution. Using materials that have been recycled in place of new materials when making products helps avoid environmental harm. This means new metals don’t have to be mined, oil doesn’t have to be drilled, and trees don’t have to be harvested. Using recycled paper produces 75 percent less air and 35 percent less water pollution. Using recycled cans produces 95 percent less air and 97 percent less water pollution.
  3. Saves money. Selling recycled materials offsets the costs of collecting and processing recycled materials, making it a cheaper option for most communities.
  4. Saves energy. The US recycles roughly 30 percent of its waste each year. This reduces the amount of greenhouse gases produced by 25 million years and saves 12 billion gallons of gas.
  5. Reduces waste in landfills. When garbage trucks roll by your home to take the garbage, they cart it off to the landfill. Over time, landfills run out of space and can cause harm to the environment.
  6. Creates local jobs. For each job at an incinerator or landfill, there are ten recycling jobs and twenty-five manufacturing jobs due to recycling.

Recycling Tips for Kids

Knowing what to do and what not to do when recycling is also important. Here are some important dos and don’ts.


  • Make sure you check your local recycling rules. Not all local recycling programs work the same way.
  • Separate your recyclables from the trash.
  • Recycle envelopes with plastic and staples, the plastic and metal are sorted out later.
  • Remove caps or lids from glass bottles and jars if your city has curbside recycling for glass.
  • Rinse steel and aluminum cans, it makes them easier to process.
  • Recycle metal coat hangers and recycle empty aerosol cans.
  • Separate electronic waste. Most electronic waste can, and should, be recycled, but needs to be taken to a recycling center rather than be placed in curbside containers.


  • Broken bottles and glasses should be thrown away rather than put in the recycle bin.
  • Yard waste shouldn’t be put in recycle bins. It should be placed in yard waste recycle bins or taken away on brush pickup day.
  • Also, keep trash out of the recycle bin, as the entire bin is likely to be regarded as trash and taken to the landfill rather than recycling.
  • No waxed cardboard or Styrofoam.
  • No pizza boxes, the grease from the pizza makes them unrecyclable and can ruin the rest of the paper recycling.
  • Keep auto and plumbing parts, or any combination of paper and metal out of recycling bins (papers with staples are an exception).
  • No mirrors, safety glass, light bulbs, or fluorescent tubes in recycle bins.
  • No food—while not recyclable it can be composted.

Recycling Ideas for Kids

Recycling is not hard, but it does need to be reinforced. By designating different roles to your kids, they can learn about the importance of recycling.

  • Put them in charge of something, such as collecting all the aluminum.
  • Make it a game when grocery shopping by having them find items with the least amount of packaging.
  • Give them the job of making sure all unused electronics that use standby power are unplugged.
  • Make sorting recycling items such as plastic bottles, papers and cans a part of family time.
  • Encourage them to reuse things as much as possible.
  • Have them turn off the water while brushing their teeth.
  • Turn off switches before leaving the room.

These are just some of the ways you can teach your kids the importance of recycling and how they can contribute. Building these habits now will help them build a better future.