The first time I heard about recycling, I was in about the fifth grade, and there was one kid in my class whose family sorted their trash. My teacher asked her how it worked and why they did it. I remember thinking that it sounded onerous and slightly gross.
However, at that time, you could get paid for your recyclables, so it wasn't long before my mother had me crushing cans at her office and toting them down to the recycling center with her. We started sorting trash at home, just like everyone else.
Well, everyone except my grandparents. They continued to throw all their trash away in a single trash can that got taken to the landfill once a week. I was appalled, and I laid into them about the vital importance of recycling. To this day, my grandmother still recycles.
The environmental movement has moved forward by leaps and bounds, but one thing remains the same. Schools still spend lots of time indoctrinating kids on environmental issues, and they still send kids home to win over their parents.
I saw this happen recently when I ate lunch at school with my favorite third-grader. As we ate our lunches, she told me about the Earth Day picnic planned for the following day. The kids had been encouraged to pack lunches such that they would throw nothing away. Being particularly astute, the kids already could see difficulties.
We examined the table in front of us and found all kinds of great sins. We had paper bags, paper napkins, and plastic forks. There were several plastic sandwich bags. I'm pretty sure I remember seeing a juice box. There was environmental carnage everywhere.
The kids were convinced this was a problem. They were going to go home and reprimand their parents, insisting that they pack lunches in more environmentally friendly ways.
There are lots of things about all of this that concern me. Is it really worse to throw away a juice box than to buy a large bottle of juice (a plastic bottle that will have to be thrown away itself) and fill a reusable bottle that will go through the dishwasher, using water and energy and soap? I don't know.
What about hygiene? Plastic packaging does help keep food clean. Surely a real education would teach kids to think about trade-offs and the complicated nature of these issues rather than just feeding them a simplistic, "create no trash" message.
But there are far more fundamental issues that I find even more worrying.
First, I'm concerned about a school system that attempts to make kids into environmental zealots critical of their parents. The kids with whom I was eating lunch last week have good, responsible parents. They pack healthy lunches and make sure their kids get to bed on time. They are also busy, so for all sorts of reasons, fruit cups and juice boxes make sense for these families. I don't like that these kids are being fed the notion that they know better than the adults in their lives.
The other major problem I see is that the school seems to teach kids about the evils of sandwich bags very effectively, while demonstrating considerably less success with multiplication tables. It seems that fundamentals are being ignored so that schools can advance a political agenda. The fact that my 9-year-old buddy has to count on her fingers to figure out 6x5 is a problem, and it's one the school should be addressing.
My taxes pay her teachers to educate her in math and reading and history. They should do a better job with those things, and leave plastic bags and other decisions about lifestyle to parents.
Julie Gilstrap is research publications coordinator for the John Locke Foundation.