RECYCLING: An Artful Approach to Recycling Education

A snake-like string of aluminum soda cans slither around the cardboard sculpture, culminating in a snake's head with its forked tongue flickering over a recycling symbol. Nearby, a whale crafted from recycled papier mache swims through the air, bits of its papery blubber bearing phrases like "Recycle," "Clean Up," "Trash," and "Whale of a Problem."

Ten St. Louis schools tackled a whale of a trash problem this past spring by participating in the city's Recycled Art Sculpture Contest. The St. Louis City Refuse Division sponsors the annual citywide contest to raise awareness among students and their communities about the need for recycling and what materials are recyclable locally. It's a good match, says Becky Tannlund, the city's recycling program director, because schools increasingly are using multi-disciplinary educational approaches that allow tie-ins on solid waste issues.

"There's a trend in terms of targeting the schools because there's a captive audience in the school system," Tannlund says. "A lot of the recycling and environmental waste management education programs are focusing on the disciplines that teachers are trying to touch on. Our contest touched on art, obviously, and the humanities, but also social studies and science because we had to research which species are endangered [for this year's endangered species theme], and definitely some math ... because some of the sculptures are very carefully put together."

Each fall, Tannlund sends contest materials to the 106 public and private schools in the city. Recycling program staff then make presentations at interested schools, sorting through trash cans to demonstrate that up to 80 percent of tossed items usually can be recycled. They pass around items such as pieces of carpet made from plastic bottles, so students can touch and feel products made from different recycled materials. The students then turn their knowledge of recyclable items into art.

Usually, an art teacher or recycling coordinator supervises a group of up to 17 students. The students plan their sculptures around an annual theme and collect only recyclable materials for creating their art. This year, foil became an eagle, office paper transformed into a butterfly and cardboard appeared as "endangered youth," a species that is becoming endangered, according to students.

"Our goal is to target young kids so that 10 to 20 years down the line they are making choices that conserve our resources," Tannlund says. "And I know that there are a lot of educational programs that target young school age children with that same goal in mind. If habits and ideas can be formed now, it's easier than changing an adult mind."

But the program reaches beyond the students who turn trash into art. "Kids have a lot of power in their households," Tannlund says. "Many kids take home their recycling message ... it's because kids feel it's important and they're learning to do it at school that adults even consider recycling. In fact, when we meet with neighborhood groups, a lot of times we're meeting with parents of those kids, and they'll tell us ... 'we're recycling now because they've been learning about it in school.' That's always nice to hear."

The sculptures go on display for three weeks at the St. Louis City Museum downtown, where some 22,000 students, teachers, parents and area residents will be able to view them and take the message home. But the Refuse Division isn't content with the museum display.

Last year, after the museum show ended, recycling program staff placed the sculptures at strategic locations throughout the city, hoping that the unusual artwork might catch the attention of residents not already recycling. Sculptures appeared from the Gateway Arch to the city's Water Division where residents pay their bills. Sometimes Tannlund sees direct results, noting a teacher who called last year about recycling at her school after seeing one of the sculptures.

The program's $1,500 publicizing and awards budget comes from grant money funded by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, while the Refuse Division covers staff salaries and general education materials. The St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste Management District also has supported the program in the past. The District's Executive Director, David Berger, agrees with Tannlund that there's an increase in awareness in environmental curriculum and an opportunity for solid waste managers to work in those multi-disciplinary skill areas.

"We really feel like young people will have an important role in the future, so we support these educational efforts," Berger says. "There are many kids who still think food comes from the store, and they don't make the connections to resources. If young people are ingrained with the message to look at labels, check for recycled content and the like, then all that stuff becomes second nature, and the battle will be won."

Reaching kids with the recycling message is an important long-term solid waste management strategy, although Berger admits it's difficult to measure the effect of the city's efforts. However, he anticipates these art-oriented education programs will grow. For example, a similar program has sprung up in St. Peters, Mo., and the District recently received another recycled art program grant request.

It's the hands-on aspect that Berger believes will have a long-term impact on behavior.

"If it's a hands-on activity students can participate in, the message is taken home a lot more readily," Tannlund concurs. "Even if they don't remember the specifics of what we teach them, they do remember ... that recycling is important, it's good for trees, air, water and they are contributing to that. I think a lot of them end up taking the message home."

For more information about St. Louis' Recycled Art Sculpture Contest, contact the Recycling Program Director for the St. Louis City Refuse Division, Becky Tannlund, at (314) 353-8877 or