As the city of Missoula works on its plan to reduce landfill waste by 90 percent by the year 2050, it may want to seek advice from some local fifth-graders.

On a recent field trip to Home ReSource, Julie Papp’s fifth-grade class from Cold Springs Elementary drew pictures of what a “zero-waste world” would look like to them. Several walked to the front of the class to share their ideas.

One student, Preston Thormahlen, shared his picture with a before and after. In the "before," black smog clouded the top of the page, and a slim yellow beam passed through to the ground.

“This shows the sunlight not being able to pass through the smog,” he said. The "after" image, his illustration of a zero-waste world, had clear air and many thick beams of sunlight.

Student Adara Hauer shared her drawing. “This is what it might be like if our air was cleaner,” she said. “We can create solar-powered cars with not as much waste.”

The car in her picture had a bumper sticker that read: “ZWAP.”

The acronym ZWAP stands for Zero Waste Ambassadors Program, the curriculum Home ReSource developed three years ago to teach fifth-grade Missoulians about the materials economy and the impact their consumer decisions have on the environment.

“ZWAP! is the sound of knocking out waste in Missoula,” said Jeremy Drake, community engagement manager at Home ReSource. Drake joined the organization, which historically has focused on reusing building supplies, almost four years ago.

After living in California and witnessing how San Francisco was working toward its own city-wide zero-waste plan, and educating students about the process, he wanted to introduce a curriculum to Missoula’s youth. The educational piece, he thought, was crucial for creating lasting change.

“Kids learn about it, they see it, they can participate in it, and then they go out in their community and they see it and can participate in it there, and then the culture shifts,” Drake said.

Last year, ZWAP reached 730 fifth-grade students, and this year it's aiming for more. In its third year running, Home ReSource partnered with the Missoula County Public Schools district to work together to implement the curriculum in as many fifth grade classrooms as possible.

“The umbrella for all of this is the idea that society’s institutions can realign around sustainability when they all have a shared vision for that,” Drake said, explaining that when the government, educational system, media and cultural traditions shift their practices, cultural transformation begins to happen.

As MCPS works toward its own zero-waste plan in conjunction with the city, ZWAP is teaching students how they can help. The program is already being recognized for its efforts. In March, Drake received the Montana Environmental Education Association Business Award for ZWAP.

The program is taught in two parts by an Energy Corps service member who spends a year at Home ReSource. The first part is a classroom visit, where the educator — this year, Katie Anderson — introduces students to the concepts of reducing, reusing and recycling.

In the second part, students come to Home ReSource for several activities. On a recent Tuesday, Anderson stood before the class of Cold Springs students, wearing a green baseball hat with a recycle symbol on it. After asking the students to explain their drawings of a “zero-waste world,” they played a ZWAP board game.

The board game asked students to think about what materials can be reused or recycled, and which ones have to end up in a landfill. They first had to put together the linear “materials economy,” which shows materials being extracted from the Earth, taken to the factory, sent to the house or school, and then being thrown out in the landfill.

Then, they were given several circular arrows to paste in the materials economy, showing where materials can be sent back up the chain through reuse or recycling.

“Through reduce, reuse, recycle we can make materials economy less linear, and resemble Earth’s natural cycles more,” Drake said.

The most important “R” word of the three, however, is reduce. It’s a trickier one for students to grasp. Anderson asked them what that word means, and why it’s so important. Student Miranda Marks raised her hand.

“If you reduce how much we actually take from the Earth, we have to reuse less often,” she said, giving the answer Anderson was looking for.

After their board game, the students were given a tour of Home ReSource, with its used building materials stacked from floor to ceiling. They broke into teams for a scavenger hunt around the store, searching for materials for a specific project, like a new bed or a kitchen counter.

The hunt is meant to illustrate how much can be done with reused material, and every project had a red number in the corner that represented how many pounds of waste were kept out of the landfill by using reused materials.

After the board game, Anderson asked the students to consider another “R” word that could be used, “to tell companies to make things that fit in our loop better,” referencing the more circular economy the students made by reusing and recycling. They raised their hands and said things like “rethink,” and “redesign.”

“Request!” Anderson said. “We can request that companies start redesigning their products.”

Back in class, the students are doing just that. Papp, their teacher, said her class is now working on writing letters to companies who use styrofoam, asking them to reduce their use or stop it altogether in order to reduce waste.

The trip also helped teach students about much more than recycling, which is what they typically hear about.

“For them to understand what it means to reduce and to reuse, those are things that they’re able to do today in their houses and their schools that they weren’t thinking about prior to going there,” she said. “We’re thankful for the opportunity that Home ReSource allows us to come in and be a part of the zero-waste push, and encourages our kids to be ambassadors in the city.”

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