Teaching Through Trash

Inside the Trash for Teaching warehouse. Photos by Lata Pandya
Inside the Trash for Teaching warehouse. Photos by Lata Pandya

Greeted with lines of bins piled high with plastic tubing, cardboard boxes, fabrics, and micro-plastics it's a kind of wonderland walking into the Trash for Teaching warehouse. Located in Gardena, CA it is part classroom, part recycling center, it is all possibility and the permutations are endless.

A non-profit member-based organization, Trash for Teaching takes unused materials that would have otherwise been on the way to a landfill and brings them into classrooms. With approximately 600 members, the group serves about 400 different schools across Southern California. From pre-made kits illustrating science concepts for classrooms to "shopping" in the T4T warehouse, at two dollars a pound the organization is giving new meaning to the idiom "one man's trash is another man's treasure."

Some 90 million tons of waste is created in California each year and about a third of it ends up in a landfill. Trash for Teaching partners with more than 200 companies and has diverted over 240,000 pounds of materials from landfills. From art to science, materials go from discarded to integral tools.

At their Spontaneous Creations Workshops on Sunday afternoons, families can come in and work on school projects or just create something fun using the materials they find in the warehouse.

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Darius,11, said he never would have thought he could use a plastic jar to make the body of a gorilla.

Darius' gorilla made from salvaged plastic containers, styrofoam and fabric.
Darius' gorilla made from salvaged plastic containers, styrofoam and fabric.

Darius' experience isn't unique for a Trash for Teaching Sunday. Kieran, 7, and Riley, 12, are using discarded plastic containers to create a catapult that may eventually launch golf balls.

"I was only thinking about the golf balls," says Kieran when asked what inspired his design.

Though California recycles 74 percent of the plastic used in making things like water bottles or soda bottles, about 9.6 percent of waste in landfills is still plastic. One-third of the materials found at T4T are plastic.

 Some of the plastic materials available at Trash For Teaching.
Some of the plastic materials available at Trash For Teaching.

"There is so much of it here, there is always something that somebody can do use it creativity to make something out of it," says volunteer James K. about all the materials available at the site.

But the importance of reusing materials isn't all children learn about through the organization.

Jennifer Montgomery, an associate professor at El Camino College, leads Saturday morning workshops for early childhood education teachers interested in employing reusable materials in their classrooms. Covering a broad range of topics from nature to physics, working with these reusable materials introduces a curiosity to the young students.

"We are trying to introduce some basic concepts [and the] language that goes along with it," says Montgomery.

Often when she taught similar workshops she found teachers wanting to take home materials -- here they can.

"I want them to come, be inspired, and immediately go back and try some of these," says Montgomery.

Lunar Buggy Models on display at Trash For Teaching.
Lunar Buggy Models on display at Trash For Teaching.

Resources are exactly what teachers need when it comes to education these days. Aside from workshops, T4T also creates kits for students that teachers can employ in their classroom. There has been a push to encourage Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) concepts as well as National Science and Common Core standards.

"That's why these kinds of organizations even exist," says Jamy Stillman, Assistant Professor of Education at the Rossier School of Education at USC. Stillman also emphasizes that organizations like T4T give teachers and opportunity to practice approaches to instruction.

California will have nearly 1.2. million STEM-related jobs to fill by 2018, according to the Alliance for Science and Technology Research in America.

"We are just trying to meet education where it is. Because, really... we are common core," says Trash For Teaching Executive Director Leah Hanes.

"Our message to the kids is an underlying message about what is waste and what isn't. Because a lot of kids especially, in some of the districts we work in, some of these kids feel like they're a waste of time. They are not educate-able. Our message is you are not a waste. This is not waste," says Hanes. "It is just a different concept of what is waste."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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