145 Students, 50 Trees, One Catalog at a Time

November 25, 2008 at 10:34 am 1 comment

posted by Ted Wells ’07, 4th grade teacher at The Park School, Brookline, MA

catalog canceling challengeYou know those annoying sales catalogs that show up a little too often in your overcrowded mailbox? The ones that go straight into the recycling bin? At The Park School in Brookline, MA where I teach fourth grade, these catalogs were becoming a problem. We were receiving over fifty per day that were dumped directly into recycling. Some weekly catalogs were addressed to teachers who had retired years earlier. What a waste.

So we decided to do something about it.

We held a friendly “Catalog Canceling Challenge” between grades three, four, and five to see which group of kids could cancel the most catalogs in thirty days. Some took school catalogs home to cancel, others canceled their parents’ unwanted catalogs. Thinking they might cancel a few hundred, I built a small wooden bin in a school hallway with three columns – one for each grade – to display their piles of canceled catalogs and so we could watch the contest unfold over the month of November 2007.

catalogs1All three columns were full in eight days! And the third grade started a wobbly new three-foot pile to the right of the bin. I kept building additional columns for the kids to drop in more – hundreds and hundreds more. They truly got into this project and enjoyed doing their small part to help the environment. Some kids went door to door in their neighborhoods offering to cancel catalogs. Several children canceled over 100 each.

After thirty days, the 145 children had opted-out of 4,125 catalogs! If stacked, this would be a thirty-one foot tall pile. Everyone was stunned by their effort.

catalog2After some calculation, and considering one canceled catalog actually represents at least four future catalogs not showing up, we determined that the Park School students will save 50 trees, 50 thousands gallons of water (it takes three gallons to make the paper for one catalog), and prevented the release of 6,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (1.9 cars annual emissions worth). These were impressive results that tie a simple kid-friendly action – canceling catalogs – to preventing deforestation, conserving water and energy, and slowing global warming.

Allowing children to do something about these potentially scary topics that they are hearing much about, helps them gain control over their world and some of its problems. It gives them reassurance that they can make a difference and that we can solve these problems. As one of my students once said,

“Earth is like a human. When the human gets a fever we get chicken soup and get to watch TV. Then we get all better. When Earth gets a fever, it has no TV or chicken soup. So it doesn’t get better as quickly. We need to do everything we can to give something like a TV or something like chicken soup to Earth right now.”

In taking on this service learning work – like the recycling program the kids run at school, or the green message and its implied life changes that are slowly absorbing into our societal consciousness right now – in canceling catalogs, these children are providing our planet with some relief. Some soup! They are helping out in its time of need. Oh, and by the way, their parents were thrilled to get rid of those pesky catalogs!

After a live interview with Ann Curry on NBC’s Today Show, now other schools and some Girl Scouts have completed the project. Over 900 children have canceled 13,000 catalogs to date. This year we’re hoping dozens of other schools and scouts (or church groups, or soccer teams, or community centers) to join at www.CatalogCancelingChallenge.com and perhaps the direct marketing groups will start cleaning up their methods of unsolicited mass mailings and switch over to web-based marketing more completely.

If you know any green teachers or cool kids who want to make a difference, pass this idea on to them. Or show them this YouTube video we made. And thanks!

Sad statistics: 19 billion sales catalogs are mailed per year in the US. Only 2% of them elicit a consumer response. Most end up in landfill where they rot and produce greenhouse gasses. The unwanted catalogs waste 61 million trees, 59 billion gallons of water, massive amounts of energy (equal to 1.4 million homes a year), and CO2 emissions equivalent to 2.2 million cars annually.

Ted Wells teaches 4th grade at The Park School in Brookline, MA and is currently organizing the second annual “Catalog Canceling Challenge.” He also makes green videos that can be seen at www.TedWells.tv. He can be reached at tedwellscatablog@gmail.com

Entry filed under: environmental education, integrated curricula, service learning.

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