These days having separate bins at home, work, school, and the park is normal. It’s second nature once we use something to chuck it in the correct one. Recycling is in the public consciousness. Although simply putting things in the correct bin will not solve the world’s problems. Once, we could feel satisfied that we were all doing our bit, but we are now aware this isn’t enough. According to the organisation, recycling should be a ”last resort” and “not a first-order action which makes us happy and proud”. The other two Rs should come first: reduce and reuse.

It’s easy to teach children that recycling is important, but the whole trinity of Rs should be at the forefront of their minds. Reports of where our plastic recycling goes is worrying. Most plastic packaging is either incinerated, ends up in a landfill or is sent abroad. Only to be incinerated or put in a landfill! These countries change as they start to ban plastic imports. At the moment, Turkey and Malaysia accept roughly half of our plastic “recycling”. And even though it’s illegal to export plastic that won’t be recycled, investigators found plastic from Britain dumped illegally in these countries (Greenpeace 2021). What a Waste by Jess French explores where waste comes from and where it ends up.

It’s easy to see the little triangle symbol on plastic packaging and think it’s easily recyclable. In fact, it’s not that simple. The symbols come with codes which Kids Fight Plastic by Martin Dorey explains in a neat table. Some items with that symbol are very hard to recycle and contain extremely toxic materials.

But let’s not focus just on plastic. We need to reduce and reuse as much as we can of everything. Books that focus on these two Rs can be more impactful. Recycling isn’t 100% green anyway. Think of the transportation and energy involved in turning materials into something new…

This Book is not Rubbish: 50 Ways to Ditch Plastic, Reduce Rubbish and Save the World! By Isabel Thomas is a guide to Reducing. It barely mentions recycling and tells you when an action can save you from having to recycle. Advice includes reducing gift wrap and not buying and sending greetings cards. It does give ten alternatives which are a lot more personal. A postcard reduces the need for an envelope (and the glue). The Top Ten Upcycling Projects give new life to items otherwise thrown out. Reducing energy consumption is also a large part of the advice, especially helpful during the current energy crisis.

Fiction is a good introduction to any subject. Anne Fine’s Barrington Stoke for 7+ readers Into the Bin (and out again) introduces younger children to the idea of reusing things rather than our first thoughts of throwing them away. When we don’t want something, it’s easy to think no one else will want it. If something breaks, our first thoughts aren’t always to fix it. But saving anything from a landfill or an unnecessary journey will have a positive impact. A small one, but it’s changing the mindsets of everyone to make our first thoughts ones of reuse or repair. The children learn this as they bring things to fill a bin going to a charity shop. However, these ‘unwanted’ items are perfect for others. Even the bin before having to make the journey. The biggest hurdle is our mindsets.

Helping Our Planet (Usborne) also discusses what we can do before recycling. One of the easiest and most obvious ways is to simply look after what we own. I wonder if we leave this out of conversations about reducing waste. I think of things that we throw out at school because we don’t look after them as well as we could. Are we living in a way that we take so much for granted? The book also briefly mentions gaining mending skills. Whether you’re repairing your bike or an item of clothing, it definitely should be something to explore first. The Right to Repair legislation made repairing electronic equipment by professionals much easier, giving access to tools and components. I’d love to see a children’s book about tips on how to repair things. If you know of one, please let me know.

Fashion Conscious: change the world with a change of clothes by Sarah Klymkiw and Kim Hankinson deserves a prize. The book is an eye-opening look at the fashion industry and how consumers can change to help the planet. For example, there’s a reason that your clothes come undone at the seams after a few wears. ‘Planned obsolescence’ mean companies design their products to be unusable after a short time to keep you buying more of them. The authors also give ideas on reducing the 300,000 tonnes of clothing we send to landfills. To put that another way, these clothes are worth £140 million. And that’s just the UK. Mindful shopping, swapping, repairing, upcycling and downcycling, restyling and buying ethical fibres can reduce waste and recycling.

As we learn more about reducing our impact, we learn that there’s more to being environmental than recycling. The books I chose have very limited mentions of recycling, which is odd for a blog during Recycling Week. But that term, now universally known, is perhaps too heavily relied upon. Symbols and companies/organisations are green-washing by claiming they’re more environmental than they actually are. 

There are more books about looking after the environment for young people than any other audience… an audience who are also the most passionate and vocal about it. This is not a coincidence. It’s a shame that adults get to drive the cars because the young people know where we’re going.