When most people throw trash away, they generally don’t think about what happens to it or where it goes once it’s hauled away by garbage collectors. Team AMP, which consists of eight fourth-grade students from Poplar Tree Elementary School in Chantilly, would like to change that.
Formed as part of the school’s newly established FIRST LEGO League (FLL) program, Team AMP has been researching the recycling process and specifically advocates that people use less plastic while also more frequently recycling the plastic they do use.
“We want plastic to be known as one of the top priority recycling objects,” Team AMP member Mallina Shah said. “If you trash that product, it’ll fill up landfills, but when you recycle it, you save energy and oil… The bad thing is it’s not being recycled, so that’s what we want people to do.”
Founded by entrepreneur Dean Kamen in 1989, FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”. It was designed to encourage young people to enter science and technology fields by “engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs…that inspire innovation and foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication and leadership”, according to the non-profit’s website.
FLL includes more than 233,000 children from over 80 countries. Teams are tasked with developing research projects that address real-world issues and are presented at various competitions throughout the year, culminating with a world championship held in St. Louis, Mo., in April 2016. The 2015 “Trash Trek” challenge focuses on finding ways to reduce the amount of trash people use or improve the ways in which that trash is handled.
Team AMP, which is named after the first initials of its members’ names, decided to center their project on plastic after they learned that it’s recycled much less than other materials like paper and cardboard.
According to the group’s research, only 3.2 percent of all plastic is recycled. The remainder ends up in landfills, which contain enough plastic to circle the planet four times, and nearly 90 percent of the waste found in oceans is plastic, killing about one million sea birds and 100,000 sea mammals annually.
“Waste in the ocean can spend decades in gyres around the globe, so they can stay there for a long time before they disintegrate,” Alton Lin said, adding that every square mile of ocean contains about 46,000 pieces of floating litter.
When that marine waste accumulates, it can create large garbage patches, as seen with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which spans the Pacific Ocean from California to Japan. Rather than appearing as a giant pile of waste, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is primarily comprised of microplastics, which generally can’t be seen with the naked eye and result from plastic breaking down into tinier and tinier pieces since it isn’t biodegradable, according to National Geographic.
The issue of recycling goes beyond plastic. According to a 2007 article in The Economist, the amount of municipal solid waste (MSW) collected in the U.S. has tripled since 1960, reaching 245 million tons in 2005. The U.S. currently recycles waste at a rate of 32 percent, which is up from only 9.6 percent in 1980.
As part of their project, Team AMP members surveyed about 40 people in the nearby community to see what they knew about recycling. They learned that many people knew little about the process and decided that educating people was the best solution.
In addition to visiting the Fairfax County I-66 Transfer Station in Fairfax and the American Disposal Services center in Manassas, the students have spoken to schools and businesses, such as Costco and Target, about what they’ve learned. Target even donated some money to help with their efforts.
“Some misunderstandings that people have are people saying [recycling]’s hard to do and it’s pointless,” Mallina said.
The group’s research showed that seven yards of landfill could be saved every time one ton of plastic is recycled, and recycling would save 80 percent of the energy that goes into producing new plastic bottles, containers and other items. Because plastic is composed of oils, recycling would reduce people’s reliance on an already limited nonrenewable resource, save energy, and cut down on the emission of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
According to Team AMP, one of the biggest misconceptions that the public has about recycling is the belief that plastic bags and Styrofoam can be recycled. In reality, those products can’t be recycled if they contain traces of extraneous waste like food.
While the plastic that those bags are made of can be recycled, they need to be sent to separate programs that focus exclusively on plastic bags, since the equipment and facilities at many recycling centers, including the I-66 Transfer Station, aren’t designed to accommodate them along with other recyclable products, according to 2014 Smithsonian.com article.
Along with recycling more plastic, Team AMP wants to encourage people to simply use less plastic in the first place.
For instance, they frequently cite the example of Milo Cress, who founded the “Be Straw Free” project in 2011 at the age of 9. Milo estimated that people in the U.S. use more than 500 million straws per day and argued that plastic use could be greatly reduced if restaurants stopped automatically giving people straws or if people started using reusable or biodegradable straws instead of plastic ones.
Packaging for everything from food to toys and electronics also contributes to a lot of the consumption of plastic, which Team AMP says is often unnecessary.
“If you have to use plastic at home, you should always reuse it,” Anish Paspuleti said.
The topic of recycling became especially relevant this past weekend since Nov. 15 was America Recycles Day, a nationwide initiative organized by the environmental nonprofit Keep America Beautiful. Though it kicked off on Nov. 15, the initiative actually includes 1,712 registered events promoting recycling that are hosted in communities around the country through December.
For those in Fairfax County who want to recycle more, the county has 10 different drop-off centers, including at least one in Alexandria, Annandale, Fairfax, Lorton, Oakton, Reston and Vienna. The kind of materials that are accepted varies depending on the specific location. A full list can be found on the county’s website.
Mallina also suggests that people create community recycling bins out of cardboard boxes for their neighborhood if they don’t have a container of their own.
While they hope their message reaches everyone, Team AMP believes that it’s particularly crucial for children to understand the importance of recycling and the difference they can make in helping the environment. They also say it’s important for people to keep coming up with more solutions that are creative and effective.
“You can make a difference at the age of 9,” Mallina said. “When you grow up, you teach your children, which goes on for generations and generations, which will make our Earth a better place, which is what we want.”