Multi-state youth education pilot results in 85% of 4-H participants improving their understanding of recycling and intention to help others recycle more, increasing civic engagement and contributing to UC ANR's public value of developing a qualified workforce.
The generation of plastics has grown to over 381 million metric tons annually, nearly a 200-fold increase since 1950. Most of the plastic waste is disposed of in landfills (75%). Only 8% of plastic waste is recycled, and much plastic waste ends up in the world's oceans. Detrimental environmental effects from the production and disposal of plastics has been well-documented. While there have been large-scale campaigns to engage youth in recycling, different strategies are needed to help young people explore viable alternative options to mitigate the “plastic crisis.”
How UC Delivers
Through a multi-state collaboration with the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers and Minnesota, California, and New York 4-H, Cooperative Extension educators worked to develop and pilot youth-focused curricula to introduce youth to the prevalence and impacts of plastics in everyday life. Experiential activities were designed to help youth learn that plastics are versatile materials that come with advantages and disadvantages. For example, plastic beverage containers are lightweight and durable, reducing energy needed for transportation. However, extraction and manufacturing contributes to climate change, and many plastics are produced for single-use and do not easily decompose. The curricula also introduce youth to the new ways scientists and engineers are working to develop bio-plastics in order to lessen effects on our environment.
The curricula were designed to build foundational skills of science and engineering: observation, asking questions and defining problems, planning and carrying out investigations, and communicating. The curricula are intended for delivery during out-of-school time and facilitated by educators such as trained volunteers or program staff. Three curricula are available for download and print copies are available from Shop 4-H (Note: only K-2 is available now, grades 3-5 and 6-8 are coming soon). The curricula were piloted with more than 300 youth.
Findings from pilot outcome data included 4-H youth self-reporting that they learned some materials can be recycled and some cannot (89% of 161 youth) and that many things are made of plastic (86% of 155 youth). Youth also came up with ideas for how to care for the environment (87% of 158 youth) and expressed their intent to help family or friends recycle more (91% of 156 youth). While recycling plastic has some ecological benefits, not all plastics are recyclable, and recycling is not likely to be the only solution needed. Youth learned that the other 5 R's are important in finding sustainable solutions, including refusing plastics altogether, reducing use, reusing plastic items, repurposing plastic products, or purchasing plastics made with renewable materials that rot (compost). Place-Based Education research shows that integrating science learning with materials and experiences youth are familiar with helps lead to more meaningful and engaged learning , and thus, youth are more likely to be motivated to help improve their communities. In this way, this project and 4-H's work in the mission areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) contributes to condition changes of improved civic engagement, increased college readiness, and increased ecological sustainability.