How to Teach Your Children About Reusing Pre-loved Items


America has a long way to go when it comes to our recycling efforts. Over 60% of the garbage we produce is NOT being recycled, sending millions of tons of waste to the landfills each year. It is possible to get to almost 100% zero waste with the combined effort of conscious purchasing habits, recycling, upcycling, and keeping a circular economy going (*NOTE– the link to an interview with an expert on a Circular Economy is easily understandable to older kids and teens and can help visualize how keeping items out of landfills benefits everyone on the planet!). 

These Ideas For Zero Waste Living are a great guide to use when teaching your children. Starting with the five R’s that are easy to remember:

  • ​Refuse -what you do not need.
  • Reduce -what you do need.
  • Reuse -by using reusables.
  • Recycle -what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse.
  • Rot -(compost) the rest.

The EPA’s clickable map below will give you a report on a state by state basis to see how the waste and recycling efforts are going in your child’s home state.

Food Waste

​​The USDA  reports food waste in America is estimated at between 30-40% of the total food supply. This breaks down to approximately:

  • 133 billion pounds a year
  • $161 billion worth of food yearly 

Meaning wholesome food that could have helped feed families in need is sent to landfills. How can you and your kids help? COMPOST, an easy and environmentally friendly alternative.

  1. Make sure to have separate bins in your house for organic and inorganic recycling.
  2. Depending on how young, they may not yet understand the reasons behind recycling- global warming, preserving forests, wasting food and so on- but you can at least teach the how-to’s.
  3. This page shares a recycling and learning guide for kids aged 3-5 with lots of great games and activities. 
  4. Printable worksheets include fun things like the Recycle Memory Game.

Recycling Saves Energy

This energy saving calculator from the EPA shows the amount of energy saved by recycling a specific everyday item, such as a glass bottle, and what that saved energy could power, such as a light bulb.

Recycling Saves Resources

Careers and materials in the recycling and reuse industry continue to grow as recycling efforts are expanded.

  • Industrial and commercial recycling- metals and construction materials.
  • Repurposing textile materials such as:

More Challenging Recycling

Challenge your kids to see if there is a way to recycle EVERYTHING that you might otherwise throw out. Such as:

  • Batteries
  • Light bulbs
  • Electronics

Keep America Beautiful offers a Recycling Location Finder to search for a proper recycling location based on the type of item you need to recycle and where you live.

Take A Challenge

What’s at the root cause of excessive waste? How your family disposes of and reuses products makes an impact, but even larger impacts stem from regulation and changes that need to be made early in the life cycle of a product. Responsibility needs to ultimately be taken on by government and corporations who both have more power and influence to make large-scale changes.

Challenge: One Action Each Week-To make an impact on cleaning up the world, take the #BeRecycled pledge by:

  1. Expanding your recycling practices.
  2. Writing or calling your representative to encourage more sustainable legislation.
  3. Learn a new fun fact about recycling that can help your family become better recyclers.
  4. Contact a large corporation and ask them to provide sustainable options for their products or packaging.
    1. Share a photo on social media of an item you can not recycle (food packaging, a disposable product). 
    2. Use the hashtag #americarecycles on the item and tag the company that makes the product, and ask why theydon’t use recyclable packaging.
    3. Let kids choose what to post. Tell the company you want a better alternative.


Upcycling is a creative process where waste is perceived as a resource. Materials are reused in creative ways, giving them a second life and function. Think of a wooden door coffee table. Upcycling transforms the door into a useful piece of furniture.

Recycling takes trash and turns it into something usable again. 

Upcycling takes a potential recycled item and transforms it into something more valuable. It is a way to reduce the amount of garbage you create. 

Examples of upcycled creations:

  • Rugs from from fabric scraps
  • Lunch bags  from fabric and plastic bags (how-to tutorial)
  • Wallets made from candy wrappers
  • Crate shelves (how-to tutorial)

Teach children to create upcycled items to:

  • Use for themselves.
  • To give as gifts.
  • To sell and raise funds for an environmental project.

Upcycling Activities for Younger Kids

  1. Recycled Cardboard “Name” Decor -kids can follow these simple step-by-step instructions to create decorative words. Using cardboard and scraps of fabric to create simple and attractive wall decor. 
  2. DIY Upcycle Pencil Holder -follow directions to make a pencil and marker holder from used tin cans. Reuse your old tin can into something new.
  3. Styrofoam Tray Embroidered Art – Embroidery on recycled styrofoam trays is a simple way to introduce the art of sewing at the same time creating little works of hanging art.

Older children can learn about the economics of buying previously used items, how financing is a liability, and purchasing items that have already depreciated in value is a wiser choice. If they can learn about the deeper meanings of joy and value, they will not crave the latest and greatest material possessions. This article on things you should always buy used is a great outline. Quick summary:

  1. Appliances
  2. Books
  3. Cars
  4. Clothes
  5. Furniture
  6. Sporting goods


All in all, it’s about teaching your children to value nature, the environment around them, and to learn how to spend money on experiences and memories rather than ‘things’. Learning to have an appreciation for the earth, growing and eating the food from your own efforts as well as looking outside of a communerist mindset will no doubt lead to happier and more fulfilled adults as your children grow.

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