garbologyBy Elizabeth Grimaldi, English Teacher, Cranbury School 

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Not unexpectedly, the inspection of an individual’s garbage can reveal a great deal about a person, sometimes reveal otherwise hidden secrets, or even solve a crime. The study of the garbage produced by a group of people, by any account, can also help us to draw conclusions about that society and the values it holds. This premise propels the narrative of Edward Humes’ nonfiction book entitled Garbology: Our Dirty Little Love Affair with Trash. According to Humes, if the United States does not curb its excessive consumerism, and commit to a significant reduction in trash production, the country and world will be in grave peril.

Humes offers the reader a concise view of the history of garbage in the U.S., as well as several chapters that focus on the immediate impact of specific garbage related problems of both local and global significance, while advancing the belief that these issues will have monumental implications for the future of our planet. As an example, Humes reviews the horrendous conditions of the Pacific Garbage Patch and the seemingly impossible task of designing an apparatus to clean it up, which begs the question—which one of our most gifted STEM students will resolve this environmental crisis by constructing a better apparatus to clean up the world’s oceans?

Impressively well-researched, Humes weaves a compelling narrative thread while challenging the reader to take action by changing our habits in a variety of ways.  A model nonfiction text for interdisciplinary study, I asked my students to read most of Garbology in their eighth grade English class at the Cranbury School. The study of this text is suitable for almost any middle or high school discipline—Math (it’s statistically rich), Science, Social Studies, or English.

Recognizing that the interdisciplinary (STEM) connections are endless, I wrote six “Big Idea” text dependent questions for each chapter, posted them in Google Drive for collaborative inquiry and provided follow up time for discussion and dialogue. The questions were designed to to support their comprehension of this high-level text, to problem solve, and to compel the students to dig deeper to analyze the many features of the trash problem and its impact on our living conditions.

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Luke and Aiden present their research on the environmental benefits of purchasing a hybrid car.

After reading most of the text, students were invited to design their own projects and to demonstrate their learning to the community. Students were encouraged to identify their interest areas, partner up with another student with a similar interest, and to select a real world project to embark upon after reviewing a menu of options related to the care of the environment. Luke and Aiden were initially hoping to design a hybrid car, but in an effort to complete the project before graduating eighth grade, decided to design and deliver a presentation to the local Lions Club, touting the benefits of owning a hybrid vehicle. Their presentation was a highlight for L.C. members. Caroline and Faria designed a butterfly garden, met with the superintendent of schools, funded the garden, and are planning to plant it this month. Anthony and Alexander chose to address the use of Styrofoam trays in our school cafeteria, analyzed the cost and feasibility of switching to recycled cardboard, and eventually convinced the Business Administrator to convert the product line. Jack and Kieran are currently studying the use of plastic bags by local supermarkets and are hoping to play a role in convincing them to switch to recycled paper bags. Erin, Avery, and Sarah repurposed a gourd, turned it into a birdhouse, and displayed it in our courtyard garden. They’ve been feeding the birds all year. The entire middle school has enthusiastically rejected single-use water bottles and committed to the use of refillable water jugs, another message that was embraced by the Student Council.

Another bonus of the study was the emergence of a parent volunteer who later visited our classroom to deliver a presentation about her family’s commitment to reducing waste. As it turns out, this family was inspired by their adult children, who, living in France, practice a more authentic version of Bea Johnson’s zero-waste lifestyle, to which Humes devotes a chapter in the book. The video presentation is posted to the homepage of our school’s website at cranburyschool.org. Bea Johnson’s book has also become an international bestseller.

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Mrs. Helene Bernay, parent volunteer, teaches the class about her family’s zero-waste lifestyle.

In yet one more positive outcome of this challenging study I recently learned that our Student Council deepened their commitment to the sagging terracycle.com middle school initiative and reactivated the level of student commitment to this responsible effort. Terracycle is a national recognized upcycling program that was founded by a Princeton University graduate. The company encourages consumers to collect snack wrappers and other items and has designed school programs to encourage kids to do the same. Additionally, the study of the text helped our school to earn the Sustainable NJ Bronze award, a challenging goal that every school should endeavor to achieve.

There is no doubt that our gifted and talented students would uniquely benefit from reading Humes’ book, especially for the way in which it insists that the reader engage in problem solving in response to the crisis laid out for us. It demands that the reader play a role in creating a solution to a huge problem in our country, and we need our gifted students to fully engage with these types of problems. Exposing your students to this text will inevitably lead to the development of a more enlightened, environmentally conscious generation and may even lead to the solutions that our entire nation, and world, is seeking.

Elizabeth Grimaldi is an English teacher for grades 3–8 at the Cranbury School in Cranbury Township, NJ. She can be reached at egrimaldi@cranburyschool.org.

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