Joel Kohlstedt: Covid couldn’t stop vital learning partnership

Waste Management’s program for waste reduction and recycling lessons took to Zoom in county schools.

Joel Kohlstedt

Joel Kohlstedt

By Joel Kohlstedt / Herald Forum

When schools shuttered abruptly due to covid-19, students, teachers and families were at a loss.

How would remote schooling work? Could it be engaging enough to advance learning? What about students already struggling at school or home?

No one had all the answers, and yet the Waste Management recycling educators in Snohomish County soon had a plan. WM has been an integral part of the local educational community since 2012, providing innovative, hands-on learning for elementary grades through high school. With this experience and a passion for youth engagement around sustainability, the WM team transitioned to virtual outreach with speed and purpose.

The response is encouraging. Students perk up. They are engaged, asking and answering questions, participating in quizzes and exercises, laughing and challenging each other and instructors.

By June, we will have completed 80 virtual workshops at 12 schools across Snohomish County.

Here’s the report card so far:

• One teacher said the WM programming was “the best part of our day!”

• Feedback from Emily Boettcher, a fourth-grade teacher at Discovery Elementary in Everett, was clear and positive: “My students really enjoyed it,” she said. “We’ve had quite a few guest presentations, and this was the most engaging.”

• Discovery Elementary teacher Angel Georgeadis appreciates the opportunity for her students to learn from experts. “I’ve worked with Waste Management for years,” Georgeadis said. “Any time you can learn from someone who knows more about the subject, that’s a good thing.”

• Marysville’s Cedarcrest Middle School teacher Jenevive Delazzari said the workshop energized her students about living more sustainably. “The more students become aware of the impacts on humanity, even on a small scale, the better chances we have of the next generation being more thoughtful,” Delazzari said.

We agree. It’s all about engaging youth for a sustainable tomorrow!

That’s why the WM educators make a point to kindle critical thinking and what students can do as individuals. We connect the schools’ approved curricula (biodiversity and habitat) with waste reduction and recycling, culminating in a question for every student: “What’s the one thing I can do to protect the planet?”

The question prompts ideas and some deep thinking. Many students make personal pledges to put their new knowledge to work at home or in the community.

Looking back, no one envisioned a pandemic or the urgent need for virtual education, but Snohomish County leaders were clearly thinking ahead when they forged this innovative partnership. The objective was to reduce waste and increase recycling. The pathway turned out to be a unique agreement with WM.

The agreement funds environmental education through the sale of recyclables collected in the County. Manufacturers pay WM for the materials and then use the materials to make new products. WM and the County use part of the proceeds to fund education about waste reduction and recycling.

With oversight from the Snohomish County Solid Waste Division, the program has won national and state awards for activating students and multicultural communities around sustainability. For schools specifically, WM has presented 1,400 workshops and 220 student assemblies.

The program also has helped Snohomish County achieve a high recycling rate. That’s what happens when young people and whole communities embrace waste reduction and recycling!

As the school year draws to a close, the WM team would like to salute the parents, teachers and administrators who pulled together to make learning and growth possible for our youth, despite arduous circumstances. Thanks to you — and to foresight from Snohomish County leaders a decade ago — the 2020-21 school year also advanced sustainability and environmental citizenship, one Zoom workshop at a time.

Joel Kohlstedt is recycling education manager for Waste Management, Pacific Northwest.

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