Teaching My Kids About Recycling


I recently realized that I didn’t know how to recycle. I mean, you know, I recycle.  But when I started teaching my kids about recycling in Vermont, I realized there was so much I still didn’t know. I bet you don’t know it either.

And if you and I don’t know about recycling in Vermont, how then how can we teach our kids? It was time to learn so I could teach my kids about recycling.

Boy holding two empty cans.

While on a walk with my 4-year-old son this February, we came across a piece of trash on the sidewalk. His response was,

Mommy, I can’t believe somebody littered on Valentine’s Day!

This got me thinking. I’d never really talked to him about littering but thanks to the good ol’ Paw Patrol, he was somewhat familiar with the idea of recycling. However, after discussing the basics of why we shouldn’t litter and why we should recycle… I realized my knowledge on the topic needed a refresher.

If you’ve ever talked to a 4-year-old then you know that vague answers generally won’t cut it. This little three-foot tall, rosy-cheeked trial attorney takes questioning very seriously.

Our conversation went a little like this:

“But what do they do with the empty cans?”


“And what kinds of things do they make?”


“Does the recycling go someplace different than the trash?”


It turned out that I actually had no idea about recycling and my intuition was telling me that I should. I’d spent years studying the human body and wellness, but virtually no time learning about the Earth. Whoops.

Ironically, I once won a free week at a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Summer Camp when I was a teenager. Amusingly, the only two things I remember from that week are how the cafeteria staff encouraged us to lick our plates (to teach the importance of not wasting food) and how cute one of the camp counselors was (major crush alert).

Being marginally educated about recycling was not okay with me. I want my kids (and myself!) to fully appreciate Mother Earth and take care of our land in the best way possible. Taking care of our environment is a core part of my family’s belief system. I want to teach our kids the importance of taking care of both themselves and the space they inhabit.

Two babies sitting outside in snow.

As Kumiko from Cobra Kai teaches,

“Put good into the world and good will come back to you.”

Like many families, our local trash service collects our household garbage and recycling in two different bins via curbside pickup. My question was, if I didn’t know how to properly fill our recycling bins, how much of what we put out to be recycled actually gets recycled?

The side of our recycling bin says “Zero-Sort Recycling” but was I doing it right? Was I making more work for the garbage and recycling collectors by not doing it correctly? Were my recyclables being correctly processed?

After diving into this topic online, I now feel more confident that my family is recycling correctly and therefore helping our environment.

Recycling symbol with garbage on grass.

Here are the most important things you need to teach your kids about recycling:

  1. Clean it first! One dirty item in your recycling bin can spoil the entire bin, leading everything inside the bin to become landfill
  2. Recycle only what can be recycled in your area and include only these items in your recycling bin
  3. Find fun videos online to show your kids how things are recycled
  4. Teach your kids how to appreciate the earth!

Number four is my favorite!

I’m a firm believer in positivity and I trust that encouraging my kids to appreciate the earth can only bring good to our planet. My fundamental idea is that it’s hard to treat something that we care about badly, right?

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation says it best:

“Why recycle? It’s a simple way you can take care of our beautiful state. Recycling creates jobs and new products, reduces climate change, and conserves resources, energy, and landfill space.”

This encouraged me to regularly include looking for the recycling symbol on food products while grocery shopping and having lengthy discussions about how to appreciate and take care of the earth with my kids. I have loved these discussions because while yes, they are educational, they also tend to be very entertaining when I hear what kinds of comments my 4-year-old comes up with! Like, how strong tree trunks must be (like the Hulk), how fast we think the wind is blowing (faster than a race car) or how beautiful flowers can be (as pretty as Skittles).

Young girl holding recycling bin.

For my own educational purposes, knowing what cannot be recycled was the most helpful thing to review. If you are like me, this list will help you:

  • Food-contaminated items (like used paper plates or greasy pizza boxes)
  • Plastic wrap, bags, or straws (and chip bags!)
  • Plastic toys or sporting goods equipment
  • Packing peanuts and bubble wrap
  • Styrofoam
  • Photos
  • Windows or mirrors
  • Foam egg cartons
  • Wood (this one surprised me!)
  • Light bulbs or batteries
  • Yard waste (such as grass clippings)
  • Hazardous chemicals and chemical containers (like an empty container of engine oil)
  • Ceramics (like old coffee mugs) or kitchenware (like a frying pan)
  • Medical waste (items that have touched body fluids)
  • Wet paper or cardboard
  • Clothes
  • Electronics

So what CAN you recycle? Aluminum, steel, paper, cardboard, and certain plastics.

And remember:

  • Containers must be empty and rinsed clean
  • Paper and cardboard must be dry (broken down and folded helps!)

Garbage thrown into recycling bin.

If you’re unsure about recycling a specific item, you can check out your garbage or recycling company’s website or contact your waste district or town here.

For other items that are tricky to dispose of such as electronics or paint cans, check out this page for help.

Educating myself and teaching my kids about recycling has been inspiring and I hope this blog post motivates you, too. Obviously, I realize that I am still learning and would love to hear ways in which you’re teaching your kids the importance of taking care of our earth!


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