Nature Protectors Unite! It’s Time to Talk Trash!

What happens when you put your recycling into the big blue bin? After the city trucks collect it, where does it go?

Hello, world. Let’s get to recycling! Image Credit: Earth 911

My daughter asked me this as we took our recycling out for the weekly pickup. While I didn’t know the answer to her questions, I did know who would – the Public Works Department of Phoenix! I called the North Gateway Transfer Station and arranged a tour of their recycling facility! We were actually going to take a tour of a recycling center to see where our trash goes! This was awesome! Boy, it sure was going to be hard to wait for a whole week!

I decided to take this opportunity to think a bit more about our own waste management. We’ve always been fairly considerate of our impact, trying things such as composting, making “no littering” signs, and organizing a small Earth Day parade at our local park. This time, we decided to take a closer look at ourselves and our habits. We wanted to know, what were our own contributions to waste and recycling? We decided to track our waste for a week to find out…


Materials Needed:

Graph Paper
Bathroom scale
Plastic bags


1. Make a table to chart your data. Label your trash and recycling sections, and mark off 7 squares, one for each day of the week.

2. Designate one plastic bag for trash and one for recycling. Throughout the day, fill each bag with waste as you would normally fill your waste bins. Make sure you keep your trash and recycling in separate bags!

3. At the end of the day, weigh yourself on the scale. Then weigh yourself with one of the bags and subtract to find the difference. Record your data on the corresponding section of your table, and repeat the process with the other bag.

4. Each day, start with a clean bag and dispose of the old one. Keep track for a week and see how you and your family measure up!

Our scale’s batteries ran out halfway through the week. However, we were able to record data for 4 days, and we found that during that time, we had thrown out an average of 2.75 lbs of garbage and had recycled an average of 1.5 lbs each day. While that is better than the national average of 4.5 lbs of trash thrown out by individuals every day, we knew that we could improve on this number.

Now we had another question: How do we REDUCE the amount of garbage that we throw out each day? It was time for some good old-fashioned brainstorming!

We put our list on the refrigerator and began to put our ideas into action. While we use our plastic bags for dog bags when we take the dog on a walk, we thought having less of those around would be a good idea. So we bought a tote bag and began using it at the grocery store. We also began ordering less food when we eat out, so we don’t have Styrofoam containers to contend with in our garbage.

My daughter and niece wanted to use some of our ideas to help lessen the amount of litter that exists in the world. They are determined Nature Protectors, after all. The first thing they wanted to do was take to the neighborhood and clean up the park!

The wonderful thing about this experience was that the girls saw an immediate impact on the neighborhood, coming directly from their efforts! They shooed birds away from plastic milk caps and caught many plastic bags from flying into the street. We also had the added benefit of quite a few friendly neighbor interactions! One of our neighbors invited the girls to feed sliced apples and carrot coins to the neighborhood goats. We passed 2 other neighbors who were also collecting trash in our park!  The girls had such a great time with this that by the end of the week, they had gone on 3 separate litter missions!

Now that we had collected some trash from our streets, what were we going to do with it? As we sorted the recycling and trash, the girls came up with a couple of great ideas…


Materials Needed:

Washed pieces of garbage (things that can be used as a head, a torso, or are just visually interesting. We use things like bottle caps, tinsel, candy tins, and clips. No rust or sharp edges!)
Hot glue gun
Extra craft supplies
Googly eyes


1. Wash all pieces of litter with hot soapy water. Remove as much dirt as possible from your items.

2. Start putting pieces together! What would make a great head? Is there anything in there that could be used for glasses or pigtails? What about a funny nose or crazy hair? What can you use for a body, or arms and legs?

3. Glue your pieces together.

4. Paint and decorate! Let your imagination go wild! Maybe your litter critter will have polka-dots, maybe it will look like a clown, a boy or a girl, or maybe it’s an alien from outer space!

5. Admire your creation and set it somewhere on display! Or, you can make your creation something useful (this is especially easy if you’re using candy tins), so you’ll really be reusing something that would have otherwise been thrown away!

Kat had another fantastic idea for reusing the plastic bags we get from grocery stores. She wanted to know, since they blow away into the street so easily, could she use them to make a parachute for her toys?


Materials Needed:

Plastic bags
Toys to act as parachuting paratroopers
Fan (to launch!)
A high place (to drop!)


1. Tie some string to the handles of your plastic bag, and use it to secure a toy to the parachute. If you’re using a fan, angle it so that it’s pointing toward the ceiling. Hold the parachute over the fan, steady yourself, and let go! If you’re dropping it from a high place, steady your hand and drop it! Let it go and see how well the toy floats down.

2. Experiment! Can you make a parachute fly better than the original bag? What if you cut it into a circle, or added a lot of pieces of string around the edges? What if you built a frame in your parachute to make it look like an umbrella? What if you made it REALLY big?

3. Test your parachutes! Parachutes work by catching particles in the air, which increases air resistance. This friction slows the bag down against the force of gravity. Which design catches the most particles, and causes the most air resistance?

Finally, our week was up and it was time to head to the recycling center for our tour! The girls and I were so excited, we couldn’t wait to find out what happens to our recycling once the truck picks it up!

We met with Robert Amaya, the Recycling Education Specialist for the Public Works Department. While he normally gives tours to schools or other large groups, he also arranges small group tours for homeschooling families or people who are interested in how the recycling centers operate. We were fortunate enough to be able to have Robert all to ourselves as he gave the three of us a tour of the North Gateway Transfer Station!

Our first stop was the garbage transfer area. Garbage is collected from approximately 400,000 homes and businesses and brought to this transfer station. From here it is shipped off to various landfill sites. This warehouse area was twice as large as the photograph, by the end of each day it will be completely filled with garbage.

This is the recycling sorting station! This warehouse was equally large and filled with various types of sorting machinery. They process paper, cardboard, plastics, and glass. These are then prepared to be shipped off to sold to various mills around the country. Paper, as we learned from Mr. Amaya, is the most important resource for Phoenix’s recycling program. The paper is bundled into large bales and sold to an Arizona paper mill, which turns the paper into recycled paper products! Selling the recycled materials to these mills pays for the recycling and trash collection and various waste management programs throughout the valley.  (If you’re interested in obtaining copies of Phoenix fiscal records, click here.)

We were surprised to find out just how much we can recycle! I knew all about paper, plastic, and glass, but I didn’t know that we could recycle empty aerosol cans, cleaned paint buckets, lawn chairs, laundry baskets, chlorine buckets, plastic toys… even recycling bins can be recycled! We’ve certainly improved our recycling capabilities in the last three years!

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen what we can recycle in Phoenix, print this flyer out (pdf) and hang it on your refrigerator!We’ve come a long way in Arizona with regards to how much we care about our environment. Most new parks are installing park benches made from recycled plastic bottles, we’re installing more solar panels in parking lots (As we should, we have so much sun!), adding recycling bins to our parks and recreation areas, and we’re even installing synthetic grass in some of our tournament areas to alleviate our wasted water concerns! We still have a long way to go, but we’re getting there!

Get Involved!

Here are some things we all can do to have an immediate impact on improving the nature of recycling in our cities:

1. Drop your plastic bags off at your grocery stores to be recycled! Every grocery store (in the US) should be recycling them, and they’ll have receptacles near the entrance for you to properly dispose of them.

2. If you do throw your plastic bags away, do not put them in the recycling bins! While we were on our tour, the machines shut down as a safety feature, due to clogs from the bags. This is dangerous for the workers and costly in time that is wasted removing them from the machines.

3. Make sure that normal trash does not make it into the recycling bins. While plastic bags are the #1 contaminate of the recycling bins, surprisingly, dirty diapers come in at #2 . While that’s disgusting in itself, it is indicative of the bigger problem of cross contaminating garbage and recycling.

4. Think of ways that you can REDUCE, REUSE, and RECYCLE!

The kids had a great time this week, thinking of ways that they could limit their impact on the environment. They were strict enforcers of the “bring your tote bag to the store!” rule. They made cute little recycling signs to hang up at their houses, and they walked the neighborhoods picking up litter three times during the week!We were all very excited to learn about what happens to our recycling after we put the bin to the curb. It was fascinating to see all of the sorting machines and wonderful to hear the girls exclaim in excitement when they saw how much of an impact these recycling centers have on removing garbage from the streets. The girls have decided that for the rest of their lives they will be active recyclers, and the very best Nature Protectors!

If you would like to arrange a tour of your local Phoenix recycling center, here is the Public Works Department’s education outreach page. After composing a message with your contact information, a city official will get back to you shortly to inform you of your closest tour opportunity. If you’re outside of Phoenix, just do a Google search for your city and “recycling tour”, to see what options are available to you.

Have fun and happy recycling!

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