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San Rafael elementary school students are the teachers when it comes to recycling

San Rafael elementary school teaching recycling through team of students
San Rafael elementary school teaching recycling through team of students 03:03

Students at an elementary school in San Rafael have become experts in the field of recycling, and have lessons for others who need a refresher, including those who work at CBS News Bay Area.

It's lunchtime at Glenwood Elementary School, but before the students head back to class, there's a quick trip to the recycling bins. From what we could see, the kids really know what goes where.

Their expertise is thanks in part to the school's Green Team.

"The Green Team is a group of really dedicated kids who care about the environment," explained Julie Ryan, who teaches 4th grade at Glenwood. "And they're trying to help our whole school learn how to sort their waste, and the importance of doing that and also just in general to reduce waste."

Ryan is also the facilitator for the Green Team, made up of 4th and 5th graders.

When it comes to reducing waste, members of the Green Team have their work cut out for them. About 2 billion tons of waste are generated each year around the world.

Not only that, but 40% of the food people bring home ends up in landfills. And that "landfill mix" is helping to fuel climate change, by creating a potent greenhouse gas.

"When they mix it, it creates methane. And methane is a greenhouse gas that can lead to pollution to our environment," explained Green Team member Sienna.

Fifteen percent of greenhouse gases come from landfills. If organic waste like food or soiled paper is not composted, it rots and produces methane, which contributes to more extreme weather events.

"Greenhouse gases can cause serious weather than droughts and wildfires," noted Green Team member Kip.

One recent survey revealed that more than 55% of Americans are confused by recycling. And those experiencing confusion include seasoned news veterans, including those at CBS News Bay Area

Inside the newsroom, we have strategically placed bins. However, there is regularly a problem with sorting.

On any given day, soiled paper towels and cups are thrown into landfills, plastic bags dumped into compost, and food remains tossed into recycling bins.

KPIX turned to the Green Team for help. While some regulations and guidelines vary from county to county, there are some shared general ideas.

"Organic food in the compost, soft plastic in the trash," explained Tyler.

What does not go into recycling?

"Food waste," said Kip.

"Candy wrappers," said Gabriella.

"Chip bags," added Dylan.

What does not go into compost?

"We don't want to put any of the trash in compost and to put plastic bags, and wrappers, and straws and those things. None of that should go in compost," explained Jojo.

And what does not go into landfill?

"Banana peels, or soiled paper or even plants," said Zoe.

But one item at KPIX that flummoxed us. Inside the landfill bin we found a sealed plastic bag. Inside the bag was an aluminum can that contained bits and pieces of partially eaten sardines, oily paper towels, a soiled paper plate, and a plastic fork.  We turned once again to the Green Team.

Our question was met with disgust.

"It's gross," we heard muttered.

"I think that — That is definitely not the best choice to do," said Gabriella, as she turned the sealed bag over in her hands.

Tyler was blunter with his assessment.  

"This is the type of thing where people are just too lazy to do it," he surmised.

Their advice: the aluminum – wiped clean and dry - goes into recycling. 

The sardine remnants, paper plate, and paper towels should go into compost, and according to Cal Recycle, at this point, all plastic, biodegradable, and compostable utensils need to go into landfill. The contents of compost are processed differently than a compostable implement would need to be properly composted. The Green Team has a pro tip: bring reusable utensils.

The Green Team insists that sorting is just not that hard; it's easy enough that 4th and 5th graders have mastered the skills.

"I think it's pretty easy. Just you have to know where things go and then you get used to it," said Gabriella.

"Just always follow the stickers or like the instructions when it comes to trash," said Sienna.

That's the best kind of trash-talking.

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