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What's Up in the Environment
overview | PROCEDURES

  Recycling by Composting

Step 1 - State the Problem
Step 2 - Research, and Hypothesize or Predict
Step 3 - Plan Experiment and Gather Data
Step 4 - Analyze the Data and Make a Conclusion
Step 5 - Take Action
Step 6 - Assessment

Step 1 - State the ProblemMore information about this step

Introductory activity ≠ waste statistics

Begin by examining how much waste we generate. Have students start to understand this problem by keeping a log of the amount of waste they create for one day. They should record:
  • what they throw out,

  • the estimated weight of each piece of garbage,

  • whether it's organic,

  • and if it is a recyclable product.
The next day, have the class determine the following about their garbage:
  • What is the average total weight of garbage produced by students in this class?

  • How much of that garbage is recyclable?

  • How much of that garbage is compostable matter?

  • Try to figure out the same statistics on a national level. Visit the US Census site for current population figures.
Put the information into a pie chart to determine the percentage of the waste that is
organic matter. Then have them find out if we have the means to dispose of all of this waste now and in the future.

Optional extension: To get more data and accurate statistics, invite other classes or schools to keep a waste log. Then share data and complete a statistical analysis. Share the results with the other classes or schools via e-mail or Web site. See the teacher tools for sites for resources.

Resources for step 1

Materials needed

  • For the chart ≠ Excel (optional) or graph paper

Teacher tool Web sites

Bookmark these Web sites for student research

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Step 2 - Research, and Hypothesize or PredictMore information about this step

Research local waste

Now have students explore how their community handles waste management. They should focus on the benefits of composting. Give them the following questions to research, or have student groups develop their own set of questions.

  • How much and what kinds of waste are generated in your community?

  • How and where is waste dealt with in your community? (Is it incinerated, sent to a landfill, etc.?)

  • How long do the different kinds of waste take to break down using the different methods?

  • How much of your community's garbage can be composted?

  • What are the benefits of composting? How would it benefit your community?

  • How does composting work? (What methods and materials are used, what is the process, etc.)

  • How does composting impact soil quality?

  • How much does it cost to compost?

Get in touch with your local sanitation department, environmental commission, and local environmentalists to find the answers to these questions. Use the Web sites listed below to find local listings. Ask if there is a composting program in your area, and take a field trip to the location to find out how it works and how much waste is composted. Make sure to take some compost back with you to complete the experiment in step 3.

Using all your research, create a hypothesis for this question: What impact would increased composting have on my community? How would mixing in compost affect the soil quality in my community?

Resources for step 2

Teacher tool Web site

  • Environmental Protection Agency: Contact Information
    Scroll down to the map and click on your region to get contact information for your local EPA office. Consult with local officials to get information about waste disposal in your community.

Bookmark these Web sites for student research

Waste management information Composting information Back to top

Step 3 - Plan Experiment and Gather DataMore information about this step

Now have your class do an experiment to test the hypothesis you made in step 2. If you were unable to get compost soil from the field trip, you can make your own as described in step 4, or buy it. (See teacher tools below for help). Next, dig up a sample of soil from an area with poor soil quality such as a playground or a frequently traveled path. You may want to conduct a soil test. Mix half of your sample with an equal amount of compost and put it into five large flowerpots. Put the rest of the soil sample into another five flowerpots without any compost. Plant the seeds of a few different fast-growing local plants in each pot. Make sure the conditions in each pot of soil (test soil and control soil) are the same. A group of students can be assigned to make sure the plants all get the same amount of sunlight and water. If possible, have students photograph the daily growth of the plants.

Recording data

Talk to students about what kind of data they'll need to record, how often they'll need to record it (we recommend daily), and how they should organize it. We recommend that groups of students be assigned to record the following for an individual plant over a period of two or more weeks:
  • daily plant growth and health,

  • pH level of the soil (many plants grow best in soil with a pH between 6 and 7),

  • amount of sunlight, water, and temperature that the plant gets.

Resources for step 3

Materials needed

  • composted soil
  • gardening tools (spade, 10 large flowerpots)
  • soil test, pH kits
  • indigenous, fast-growing seeds
  • data records (Excel, or notebook or log book)
  • camera (optional)

Teacher tool Web sites

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Step 4 - Analyze the Data and Make a Conclusion  More information about this step

Use the data from measuring the plants to create a line graph showing the growth rate for each plant. Once complete, ask students what conclusions they can draw from the data, or have them answer the following:

  • Is the soil packed down?

  • What is the pH-level?

  • What other signs are there to show the fertility of the soil?

  • How healthy are the plants in each pot?

Compare the soil quality in each pot. Using your observations and data, what conclusions can you make about the impact of compost soil on growth? Could compost be used to improve the soil quality all over your community? Are there areas in your community, such as contaminated, abandoned lots, where poor soil could be reclaimed by compost? Have students use images of the plants, and written descriptions of their findings in a written report, PowerPoint presentation, or Web page. See resources below for help.

Resources for step 4

Materials needed

  • For report: PowerPoint or word processing software or use Web building resources listed in teacher tools

Teacher tool Web sites

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Step 5 - Take Action

Have students visit the sites listed below to get advice on planning and implementing a composting program in your school. Decide what composting method will work best ówith the right equipment, it's even possible to compost indoors if necessary. When the compost is ready, mix it into a garden at your school or a local park. (Make sure to ask for permission first.) Plant a flower garden in the new, rich soil.

Resources for step 5

Materials needed

  • Composting materials as listed in the Backyard Magic site below

Bookmark these Web sites for student research

  • National Wildlife Federation: Take Action
    This site gives great advice on how to write to local media, write press releases, plan campaigns, and more. You may want to have your students consult this site for advice on how to promote their composting campaign within their school or even their community.

  • Environmental Defense ≠ Composting: Nature's Recycling Program
    Get the facts about composting and find what it takes to start your own composting program in your community or school.
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Step 6 - Assessment

While organizing the composting project, take pictures, write articles, and interview environmentalists (including yourselves). Keep track of how many pounds of waste were recycled by composting. After composting, reflect by writing about the experience and how it felt to be an environmentalist.

Send a description of the project to a local newspaper and officials. Ask them to support composting, and explain how more composting could improve the local environment. Gather all the materials made during this project and build a Web site or make a scrapbook about to share with others. Send us your Web project and we'll post it on the WHAT'S UP IN THE ENVIRONMENT Web site!

If possible, return to the garden where you added the compost a year later to see how the garden is doing and test the soil. Analyze the new environment you helped promote and see how it made a difference! Send us your results with a Web site update.

Resources for step 6

Teacher tool Web sites

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