published Sunday, May 19th, 2013

Kennedy: Recycling grouch caves, now seeks redemption

Around our house, I'm known as the recycling grouch.

While everyone else in my family is a faithful recycler, I've been slow to embrace their save-the-Earth mentality.

My main nemesis is clutter, see, and much of what should be tossed into the recycling bins in our garage never actually makes it there. Instead, our kitchen table sometimes becomes a halfway house for wayward plastic water bottles and spent milk jugs, which I promptly deposit into the garbage after a reasonable wait. Say, 30 seconds.

For this I take considerable grief from my 6-year-old son, who would rather I commit a felony than aid an escapee from the recycling bin.

What can I say? I'm a child of the '60s -- the Space Age. I always assumed that if we ran out of landfill space here on Earth, we could always find some hot-to-the-touch planet where we could dump our junk.

If you think human beings can despoil the whole universe with old magazines and soda cans, you haven't spent much time looking at the night sky. Anyway, with our space program essentially grounded, it's probably about time that I climbed on the recycling train.

To get inspiration, I visited Westview Elementary School this week, where about 400 students of science teacher Tracy Walsh have participated in an end-of-year project to invent novel ways to recycle household stuff.

It's incredible what the young minds of children -- with a Pinterest app -- can produce.

I saw:

• Pinwheels made of surgically altered Dr. Pepper cans.

• A whole farmyard full of piggy-banks made from Mayfield gallon milk jugs.

• Baskets woven from old newspapers.

• CD jewel boxes made into picture frames.

• A campfire cooker made from old coffee and tuna cans.

• Wind chimes made of metal tubing from a discarded backyard swing set.

• Egg cartoons repurposed as playing-card holders for younger kids who can't hold their cards straight while playing Uno.

Walsh is a part-time teacher who uses her classroom as a science laboratory. Most of the year, her students do things like making magnets and models of plant cells. At the end of the year, though, she likes to assign a fun enrichment activity.

This year, she started her recycling project by asking the kids how long it takes common trash -- things such as Styrofoam cups and plastic milk jugs -- to break down in a landfill.

"Actually, I say 'landfill,' and they say 'dump,'" she notes.

Most kids guess a few months or a year, she said. Then she does the Big Reveal with statistics that show the real numbers: 80 years for soup cans to break down, 150 years for aluminum cans, and, yikes, 1 million years for a plastic jug.

For her project, Kate Bach, 11, made an ingenious waterproof umbrella holder using more than 100 plastic grocery bags. Imagine a giant version of those woven Chinese finger traps we used to play with as kids. Kate wove rope-like strands first, then fastened them together with a hot glue gun.

"And what did you learn from this project?" I asked her earnestly.

"Not to touch the hot metal thing on the end of a glue gun," she said seriously.

Fair enough.

"Oh, and how to save the Earth," she added, sensing that I was fishing for a more poetic answer.

Nathan Schmeck, 10, and his mother, cut the ends off two plastic Mountain Dew bottles and used ribbon to hinge the two pieces together like a clam shell. The result is little paper-clip holder that looks remarkably like a green apple. Walsh, who explains that Nathan gave it to her as a gift, has it proudly displayed on her desk.

My favorite craft item, though, was from a kid who took a castaway paper-towel roll and attached a plastic Solo cup on either end. Then he put a notch in the middle just big enough for an iPhone to slide into. Remarkably, the invention actually works as a music amplifier, Walsh said.

OK. It's hard to argue with genius.

Walsh's kids have convinced this old baby boomer to change his ways. No more diverting recyclables into the garbage. And I hereby promise to wheel our big, green recycling cart to the curb for pick-up every other Monday.

That happens to be tomorrow.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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