During a lab investigation, students became aware of the environmental costs of plastic water bottles. Following a lively discussion, students decided to pursue a service-learning project to see if they could find a more ecological and less wasteful solution to students’ need for drinking water. This topic fit well with the class curriculum on human resource consumption and its impact on natural systems. Students could also strengthen inquiry skills such as questioning, designing experiments, analyzing data and communicating results. Throughout their project, students consulted with their school food service director, custodians, State Representative, and staff at local recycling centers.
Students were introduced to service-learning and played a game that reinforced key concepts. They began research into the manufacture, transport and disposal of plastic water bottles, and then collected data for a week within the school. The data showed that students and staff did use disposable plastic water bottles and that 143 plastic containers were discarded in trash cans instead of being recycled. To better understand students’ needs and habits, they conducted an online survey about water bottle use and organized taste tests comparing tap water and bottled water (which dispelled the myth that all tap water tastes bad).
Students initiated a “Take back the Tap” campaign educating their school community through posters, informational activities, a school wide scavenger hunt and an impressive 6-foot “bottle mountain” (depicting a week’s worth of plastic bottle waste at the school). Local media coverage helped carry their message to the broader community. Students applied for a grant that allowed them to distribute 250 customized, stainless steel water bottles to students and staff. The school also retrofitted existing water fountains to make bottle-filling easier.
A follow-up survey showed that 85 percent of students became more aware of water bottle concerns and 70 percent no longer felt that bottled water tasted better or was healthier than tap water. Purchase of bottled water at school vending machines declined, indicating that more students were now using their stainless steel bottles.
Students held a celebratory breakfast, and the school honored their work “greening” the school.