These economic down times have forced businesses and citizens to give closer scrutiny to the Three ‘R’s: Reduce, reuse, recycle. Printing on both sides of the paper might be a new concept for some, but Richard Swerdlow, a San Francisco Bay Area third-grade teacher, is unimpressed. “Welcome to my world,” he says in a recent opinion piece on KQED-FM radio. Teachers are the masters of recycling and reusing, and have been since green was just a color and not a way of life.

“Economic necessity is the mother of invention,” he says, and teachers know a lot about both. Every year, budget-challenged educators spend anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars out of their own pockets for classroom supplies. This has spurred creative uses of plastic soda bottles and dried pasta. It has also sparked the emergence of companies devoted to providing educational materials while keeping tons of stuff out of landfills.

According to the EPA, in 2007, individuals, businesses, and institutions threw out 254 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW), stuff like product packaging, furniture, clothing, bottles, newspapers, and appliances. That’s 4.6 pounds per person per day. That amount has almost doubled since 1960.

Obviously, the best way to eliminate trash is to reduce waste -- not produce it in the first place. Companies like Wal-Mart have set themselves a goal of producing zero waste.

Another “R,” recycling, diverts about 85 million tons of MSW from landfills annually.

Reusing items is the third way to reduce waste. By redistributing materials from one who no longer needs them to those who can still find use in the items, and with little or no processing, reuse keeps what would be trash out of the waste system, conserves water and other resources, and reduces pollution. As much as 5% of the waste stream is potentially reusable, according to local studies in Berkeley, California, and Leverett, Massachusetts. Think about the deluge of new products generated every year, little changed but for color or style, and you might wonder where all the stuff that’s obsolete, outdated, or last-year’s color has gone.

One place it goes in the Bay Area is the Resource Area for Teaching (RAFT), which collects donated materials from area corporations and others and repackages them into learning kits with lesson plans for the thousands of area teachers, after-school program leaders, community group leaders, and day-care providers it serves. According to Director of Education and Marketing Greg Brown, RAFT diverts about 200,000 cubic feet of waste from area landfills every year.

In the Midwest, the St. Louis Teachers' Recycling Center, Inc. keeps more than 12,000 pounds of reusable stuff out of landfills every year. In Portland, Oregon, the School and Community Reuse Action Project (SCRAP) offers an ever-changing array of materials suitable for art, craft, and school use, diverting 64,000 pounds of materials from the waste stream annually. Since 1978, Materials for the Arts (MFTA) in New York has donated materials to thousands of public schools and others, keeping hundreds of tons out of landfills every year.

According to the nonprofit Reuse Development Organization (ReDO) in Baltimore, there are more than 6,000 reuse centers around the country, ranging from programs specializing in building materials to national programs like Goodwill. ReDO’s website links to centers in every state. If employment in this field interests you, all of these programs welcome volunteers -- a good way to get your foot in the door -- and some list job openings.

Even if you’re long past your school days, you can still learn a valuable lesson from teachers, some of the greenest employees around. And if you’d like to know how to test air pressure with a cast-off soda bottle, they can help you with that, too.


Read all of Bronwyn's green job columns here.

Green jobs Q&A: What's the ultimate green job?
These economic down times have forced businesses and citizens to give closer scrutiny to the Three ‘R’s: Reduce, reuse, recycle. Printing on both sides of t