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Students' recycling efforts win awards, benefit schools and planet

James West, Elijah Shenault. Alli Atwell and Jessica Sturgis, fifth-graders, sorted through recycling bins on Thursday, April 12, 2012 at Deep Spring Elementary in Lexington, Ky. The school is part of the Terra Brigade in which kids recycle items that normally are not recylable and send them in to earn money for the school. Photo by Laura Strange | Staff
James West, Elijah Shenault. Alli Atwell and Jessica Sturgis, fifth-graders, sorted through recycling bins on Thursday, April 12, 2012 at Deep Spring Elementary in Lexington, Ky. The school is part of the Terra Brigade in which kids recycle items that normally are not recylable and send them in to earn money for the school. Photo by Laura Strange | Staff Herald-Leader

As the student manager of his school's recycling effort, James West, 11, has had to teach some Deep Springs Elementary teachers a thing or two.

A dead mouse, for example, is not suitable for the recycling bin.

"I had to tell them that they can't put it in there," said the fifth-grader, recalling one of his more unusual discoveries in his recycling career.

But as James and other Deep Springs students have learned, juice pouches, plastic cups, tape dispensers and even spray nozzles may be recycled with some special effort, in addition to the more typical kinds of plastic thrown into recycling bins.

The Deep Springs program is one of many in Fayette County where kids do their part to help the planet — and often their schools — not only on Earth Day but throughout the year.

In recognition of the growing importance of the work of young people, former President Bill Clinton will be in Lexington on Monday to honor student environmental efforts (see box, left).

Deep Springs is involved in a Brigades program offered by TerraCycle, a non-profit that sponsors recycling efforts across the United States and in several other countries, spokeswoman Stacey Krauss said. Kids collect materials that can't be recycled through traditional methods and send them to the company to be redeemed for cash. TerraCycle transforms the materials into products such as garden gadgets.

Participation in the program, which operates like the more widely known Box Tops for Education, is free. Find details at TerraCycle.net.

"Our goal is to keep stuff out of the landfills," said Krauss.

Deep Springs science lab teacher Becky Edwards said a landfill near her home in Anderson County spurred her to pass along her passion for recycling to her students, including James, who runs the crew like a seasoned foreman.

"If I'm busy or can't do it, I'll send somebody out," he said of the weekly unloading of the school's Rosie recycling bins. But, he said, he has to keep an eye on the students because some kids are more about playing than working.

And it doesn't hurt that the effort brings in a little extra cash for school needs. The $155 they've received from TerraCycle meant Edwards didn't need to pay out of her own pocket for batteries to use in demonstrations when her students studied electricity.

Deep Springs' recycling program, supported mostly by a handful of fifth-graders, is a small-scale effort that Edwards hopes will grow.

Middle school students at SCAPA Bluegrass and Tates Creek have won national awards — and cash — for their recycling efforts.

SCAPA created one of two grand-prize entries in The Lexus Eco Challenge, and Tates Creek Middle was among the first-place winners. There were only 10 winning schools across the country. SCAPA and Tates Creek each entered multiple projects created by individual teams.

At SCAPA, a student-run campaign encouraged the use of one bath towel a week to save water and electricity, said science teacher Ashlie Beals. A team of eighth-graders — Blakeley Burger, Baylee Polzin, Sara Bidarian, Jordan Luciano, Spencer Burt and Herman Bratcher — came up with the idea, conducted surveys to test how it would be received and created a campaign to encourage students to use one towel a week.

Also, the students are working with the Catholic Action Center to encourage the practice at a soon-to-be opened women's shelter by donating towels and towel hooks for the rooms. The students worked on the project in and outside of the classroom, Beals said, averaging 100 hours each on the project.

It's an example of one simple action having a bigger impact, she said.

And students have learned that "if you can make the change with the kids, they will take the change to their parents and other people," Beals said.

The team won $30,000 from Lexus, including a $20,000 scholarship to be divided among the winning students and $2,000 for Beals to buy school supplies. The rest is going to a school fund to build a performing arts building, Beals said.

Tates Creek students were finalists in the same contest, winning $15,000. Tates Creek will use its share of the money to support a student-created rain garden, science teacher Melanie Trowel said.

Her winning students — Hannah Barnes, Emily Sandford, Casey Darling, Katie Sandford, Ethan Bridges, Kasara Miller and Morgan Boaz — came up with a plan they will present to Mayor Jim Gray that encourages communitywide environmental efforts such as carpooling and community gardens.

Trowel's students also put in long hours, including conducting a waste audit of the school building, but they did their work as part of an after-school club, which is growing more popular each year.

"It's sort of gotten bigger and bigger," she said.

One of the reasons for the growth, she said, is there are so many more opportunities for students to get involved in environmental causes.

Both teachers also like that such projects encourage kids to work as a team.

"They learn to solve problems together," said Beals, "That is going to serve them so well."

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