Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Out of the Mouths of Babes: Student Perspectives on Plastic Film and Bag Recycling from the SPI/JASON Learning “Think Outside the Bag!” Contest

JASONLogoOf all the excellent material in the more than 100 entries received as part of SPI and JASON Learning’s recently-concluded “Think Outside the Bag!” contest, the “What We Learned” or “Challenges We Faced” slide (or some variant thereof) that was included in each of the submitted presentations might be the most illuminating for the plastics industry at large.

Hosted by SPI’s Flexible Film and Bag Division, the “Think Outside the Bag!” competition challenged young people to get creative by designing a poster and a public awareness campaign that aimed to get their fellow students, schools and communities involved in collecting and recycling plastic bags and other flexible plastic film products. It also asked participating students to discuss what they learned in the process, and to identify the challenges they faced in trying to get people to recycle their plastic films and bags. Across the three participating grade bands (K-4, 5-8, 9-12) some similar insights and challenges kept coming up.spi_logo_2000x1007

“The people we knew were most supportive.”

The wisdom of the “Think Globally, Act Locally” mantra proved itself once again in the “Think Outside the Bag!” contest, as most participants found the most support closest to home. Whether it was their classmates, their parents, their friends or whomever, most entries found reaching out and asking the people they knew to help out to be a simple, effective start. It’s a testament to the power of starting locally, and also a testament to how infectious the recycling mentality can be. All it takes is one ardent recycler to turn the residents of an entire household into advocates, and that’s a powerful thing to remember.

“We found out that most plastic films are from things that we do not expect like bread bags or newspaper bags or even the container around salad.”

Participating students learned a great deal about plastics from the contest, most notably the fact that bags aren’t the only plastic films that are recyclable. Of the students that knew bags were recyclable, it seemed that not as many of them knew that food and product wrapping and other items fell into the same category.

Recycled plastic bags image“It wasn’t as easy as we thought to convince some people that recycling plastic bags is important.”

Most of the participating students cited concern for the environment as a major reason why they felt plastic film and bag recycling was such a worthy cause. Nonetheless, getting people on board with how vital the recycling process is wasn’t as simple a process as some students hoped or expected. Many of the entries relied on their poster to make their environmental message as clearly as possible, and aimed to inspire people to think about their use of plastic films and bags in order to reduce litter and make a meaningful impact on the environment.

“After some brainstorming we started presenting the poster to our families, showing them the process and specifically that plastic bags and plastic film COULD be recycled.”

Not-so-simply put, it’s hard to get people to recycle something when they don’t know that the thing you want them to recycle is recyclable.

The most basic, fundamental challenge that students encountered that could be keeping plastic film and bag recycling rates mired around 12 percent is the fact that, across the country, a lot of people still don’t think plastic bags or films are even recyclable. More than 90 percent of the nation has access to plastic film and bag recycling (most commonly through a retail take-back program), but this myth still exists.

Having to essentially educate fellow students, friends, family and community members and business leaders about the recyclability of these materials was a common refrain in terms of the biggest hurdles the students faced in their efforts, with some participants saying that conducting their campaign was a two-step process: first they had to get the hang of teaching people, then they had to actually present their awareness campaign.

In short, the students had to educate themselves before they educated their families and friends, and once they did it seemed that simply knowing that plastic films and bags were recyclable went a long way toward getting someone to actually change their behavior, and go through the process of recycling these materials.

See the winning entries on SPI’s website here and JASON’s website here.

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