April 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Talkin’ Trash | Spotlight on the Environment

In schools across the country, we remind children and teens to “reduce, reuse, recycle,” but how these acts impact a community isn’t always visible. The consequences of avoiding that responsibility are, however: litter along roadsides, refuse in our waterways, and massive landfills. As individuals and populations continue to initiate recycling and conservation efforts, others are talking about zero waste, what that means, and how to get there.

The books included here offer examples of people and communities in the United States and abroad determined to create cleaner, healthier environments for their citizens. As you share them with your students, encourage them to think about how their daily habits and practices affect their environment. What changes can they effect to make a difference?

trashIn Trash Talk!: Moving Toward a Zero-Waste World (Orca, 2015; Gr 4-8), Michelle Mulder offers readers a historical perspective on refuse. She begins by asking them to imagine a time when everything used (and consumed) was organic and touches on how long-ago civilizations and societies did—or didn’t—deal with the problem of trash—and the consequences. But the bulk of the book focuses on current-day concerns from landfills and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to issues associated with methane gas and recycling. Mulder supports the discussions with hard facts (each year, “people use 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic shopping bags”; “70 percent of the garbage in landfills could have been recycled or reused,” etc.) and informative color photos. While the author emphasizes that there are no easy solutions, she is clear that individual, local, and national initiatives are essential—and can and do make a difference. Mulder includes information on creative ideas and projects around the world that do just that, from Streetbank to Repair Cafés and from plastic bag boycotts to maker events that use recycled materials. Actionable takeaways for kids focus on simple suggestions such as buying less, purchasing secondhand goods, and planting a garden.

tt2If your students have trouble visualizing the enormity of the problem of waste, introduce them to Loree Griffin Burns’s Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion (HMH, 2007; Gr 4-9). The book paints a powerful picture of the how, why, and where of ocean pollution. The author examines the work of Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer and other scientists who have produced important data in an effort to preserve and protect marine habitats. Students will be fascinated with Ebbesmeyer’s study on the drift of contents from two cargo spills (one of 80,000 sneakers and another of 28,800 tub toys); a chapter on the Eastern Garbage Patch, estimated to be the size of the state of Alaska; and efforts by citizens and conservationists to clean our oceans and shores of debris. The ibook adds a couple of short, informative videos and/or animations per chapter and links to relevant websites.

I'm notFans of graphic novels can follow the route of a discarded plastic bag once caught in the limbs of a tree on its journey to an ocean gyre (here, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), in Rachel Hope Allison’s I’m not a Plastic Bag (Archaia, 2012; Gr 4-10). The wordless story vividly illustrates what these massive accumulations of garbage, household goods, tires, rope, net, and plastic goods of all sizes and shapes look like from above and below.

The menacing gyre shifts and expands, grows hands, and lures more debris, sea animals, and readers, inside through mesmerizing images and snatches of words that reveal themselves in the concentration of waste (“Hello! My name is…” “Come again.”). Back matter fills kids in on the facts: information on the top 10 items found in ocean debris (#1? Cigarettes), threatened marine wildlife, and suggestions on how readers can help. The book was produced in conjunction with the American Forests Global ReLeaf programs and in partnership with JeffCorwinConnect, the “global, ecological, educational and entertainment multimedia company” launched by wildlife expert and conservationist Jeff Corwin. Concerned about the publisher ‘s use of trees to produce the book? Archaia has pledged to plant two trees for each one needed to create the book.

one plastic bagWhen plastic bags first arrived in the village of Njau in the Gambia, villagers were delighted. They were cheap, could carry liquids, came in an assortment of colors, and, suddenly, they were ubiquitous. But as the years passed, the discarded bags were scattered all over the village and creating a health hazard. Local goats foraging for food were eating them, which sometimes resulted in death. Burning the bags was no solution, as it created another health hazards. Finally, a local woman named Isatou Ceesay decided something must be done. Along with her friends, she collected thousands of the bags, washed and dried them, cut them into strips, and began crocheting them into purses. Soon their recycling project became a cottage industry. Miranda Paul documents this story in One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia. (Millbrook, 2015; Gr 2-5), illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, In an author’s note, Paul comments, “Today, Njau is much cleaner, the goats are healthier, and the gardens grow better.” The women involved in the project contribute “some of their earnings toward an empowerment center where community members enjoy free health and literacy classes, as well as learn about the dangers of burning plastic trash. In 2012, the center also became the home for the region’s first public library.” How Ceesay transforms these plastic bags into purses is also the subject of a short YouTube video. A website provides a host of related resources for teachers and students, including a schedule of visits Ceesay will be making in the United States during April and May 2015.

soda bottle schoolDetermination, purpose, and a sense of community drove the women of Njau to address a problem that was affecting the health of their families and their livestock. Some of those same motivations were the impetus behind a local effort in Granados, Guatemala. As Laura Kutner and Suzanne Slade explain in The Soda Bottle School: A True Story of Recycling, Teamwork, and One Crazy Idea (Tilbury House, 2014; Gr 2-4), the people in that village  had “two huge problems in 2007. Their trash piles were too big, and their school was too small.” The book documents a resourceful teacher’s “crazy idea” that supplied the school with the necessary materials to expand and freed this tiny town of its litter.

Schoolchildren and their families set out to collect plastic bottles to create walls that would increase the size of their school. Discovering that the bottles alone weren’t strong enough, the students stuffed them with trash, creating “eco-ladrillos.” An endnote adds details, including information on the impact of this project on nearby villages. Warm watercolor art by Aileen Darragh and color photos of some of the participants illustrate the book. Since the expansion of the school in Granados, other “plastic bottle schools” have sprouted up in Guatemala and around the world. In a three-minute video, Kutner, a Peace Corps (youth development) volunteer in Guatemala from 2007–10, demonstrates how to build a plastic bottle wall.

Both One Plastic Bag and The Soda Bottle School remind readers that responding to daunting issues often begin with one person and don’t necessarily require expensive technology or huge financial resources. A can-do attitude and hard work are often all that’s needed to make a difference.


For a related film resource on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, see School Library Journal’s review of Plastic Paradise.

Curriculum Connections

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.



  1. Pam Meiser says:

    I wish ISBNs were included in these articles. I’d like to be able to copy the book information into TitleWave and have it find all the ISBNs and create a list for me!