Kim Johnson and Rae Baerlocher’s fifth-graders had doubts about recycling at first.

The Franklin Elementary students wondered why they couldn't use paper towels to clean up a spill, and they didn't get the point of separating plastics. But since the teachers began implementing these rules at the beginning of the school year, students have become impassioned about reducing, reusing and recycling.

In class recently, Johnson asked her students why it’s important to be mindful of their waste and consumption. They raised their hands and gave answers like, “So all trash doesn’t go to the landfill,” and “to reduce methane emissions from food waste.”

Some students took it a step further.

“I want to make a law where you have to compost and recycle,” one girl said.

Her classmate agreed: “If you don’t compost or recycle, you should spend two months in jail.”

Just months ago, that same student resisted recycling, asking her teachers, “Why am I even doing this?”

“I think what really got her was we were watching CNN’s student special on Plastic Island,” Baerlocher said, referencing the program about the tons of plastic trash floating in the Pacific Ocean and washing up on Midway Island. “She just realized all these animals are being polluted by us and they don't even have a say, and I think she really identified with that.”

Johnson and Baerlocher share a classroom in the new Franklin Elementary building. At the beginning of this school year, they implemented a “zero waste” program. Unlike every other classroom in the building, they did not install a paper towel dispenser, opting instead for cloth napkins and hand towels.

They also brought metal silverware for the kids to use at lunch, eliminating the waste of using a plastic fork once and then tossing it.

There’s a compost bin in the classroom that gets picked up for free daily by Missoula Compost Collection, as well as plastic and cardboard recycling. It’s a small-scale test of a larger shift Missoula County Public Schools hope to make to improve sustainability and teach students about being smart consumers.

“Fifth graders are coming in — in this day and age, which just blows my mind — with no knowledge of recycling and reducing and reusing,” Johnson said.

Johnson said in Oregon, where she’s from, recycling was “a way of life.” When she moved to Montana and noticed how little infrastructure existed in Missoula to foster that, she was disappointed, and wanted to start making changes in her classroom.

She’s also on a committee to help MCPS draft a plan as part of the city’s “Zero by 50” initiative, which aims to reduce what the city sends to the landfill by 90 percent by 2050. As a large public entity, MCPS is working to make that same change, and Johnson’s classroom is an example of what can be done.

It’s already having an impact, Johnson said. The amount of trash they produce every day is about the size of a football, and kids are adamant about recycling and composting, sometimes even reaching into the garbage when an item was incorrectly discarded.

“When you get a kid voluntarily digging in the trash, you know you’ve made it,” Johnson joked.

She and Baerlocher have had conversations with their students about the life cycle of a plastic bottle, how much fresh water the Earth has for human consumption, and how human waste affects the environment. Students have also compared how much trash their classroom produces to others, in order to understand how many reusable resources are wasted every day.

“Kim and I work really hard to say, ‘Recycling isn’t your No. 1,’” Baerlocher said. “Your first thing to do is reduce. So they all do a really good job of being aware of that and thinking about that.”

Being mindful of their impact on the world is a huge accomplishment for fifth-graders, she added.

“These kids, a lot of them come from low-income areas, so you think about where they are, and where they're getting their needs met,” she added. “To think about somebody else and to have a global perspective is a major shift.”

As the city of Missoula works to improve its infrastructure for recycling and composting, Johnson and Baerlocher’s students serve as an example of how minor behavioral and structural changes can make a significant difference. They try not to be too "doom and gloom," so that students still feel hopeful about the impact they can have, Johnson said.

“It’s really important that the kids can feel a little bit of that weight, but still be empowered to say, 'I’m gonna dig that out of the trash because, that’s not right.' ”

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