PSED: Waste not, want not

In part two of her series on sustainability, Hilary White suggests ways for children to work together to discover that managing the rubbish we produce can be both fun and good for the environment.

Sorting and recycling waste supports children's personal, social and emotional development
Sorting and recycling waste supports children's personal, social and emotional development

Finding eco-friendly ways to manage the rubbish we produce is an important part of sustainable living. ‘Rubbish’ is an interesting concept to explore, and many children become fascinated by the waste bin at a young age. While it's important to encourage children to tidy away what they no longer need, green living requires us to reassess how we deal with our so-called rubbish.

Finding ways to cut down on our use of resources, reuse resources, and recycle what can no longer be used are three important strategies – and even the youngest children can start learning how to manage rubbish in an environmentally friendly way. Sorting, reusing and recycling our waste also supports the PSED area of learning by requiring children to co-operate, work together and think about others.

Playing and exploring

  • Children enjoy sorting waste items into recycling bins
  • They learn about and explore the concept of ‘landfill’
  • Children participate in a garden litter pick activity

‘Rubbish’ means anything we no longer have a use for. Help children to identify what counts as rubbish and learn how to manage it with the following activities:

Sorting rubbish

Gather some recyclable waste items (see Enabling environments). Explain that recycling means turning used materials, such as paper, into new paper that we can use again. Provide recycling bins for cans, jars, paper, card and plastic bottles. Begin by sorting just a small selection of items. At a later stage, include a box for ‘reusable’ items, plus a bin for items that have to be discarded.


Explain that any rubbish we can't reuse or recycle goes to ‘landfill’ (a hole in the ground where rubbish is buried). Show children online footage of a landfill site (see Resources). To demonstrate how quickly landfill fills up, give children boxes, soil, trowels and items of rubbish, and invite them to fill their box with layers of soil and rubbish.

Litter pick

Help children to focus on keeping their surroundings tidy with a ‘garden litter pick’. Distribute (safe) waste items around the garden, provide recycled bin-bags and gloves, and ask them to find all the litter. Encourage them to sort the litter into recycling bins.

Children can keep their surroundings tidy with a ‘garden litter pick’. Distribute (safe) waste items around the garden, provide recycled bin-bags and gloves, and ask them to find all the litter.

Active learning

  • Children investigate waste items before sorting them for recycling
  • Practitioners help children to find strategies for retrieving litter
  • Children work together and discuss which waste items can be reused

Engage children in the ‘sorting rubbish’ activity by offering items of interest. For example, old toys, battered picture books, children's comics, eye-catching patterned gift wrap and greetings cards. Give them plenty of time to explore the items as they sort. Investigate ways of making waste items smaller; try stamping on drinks cans, dismantling cardboard boxes, tearing up sheets of paper and folding clothes.

Encourage children to think about the purpose of making items smaller (you can fit more into the recycling bin).

When preparing the garden litter pick, find some interesting and challenging places for the litter (hooking plastic bags onto tree branches, putting paper wrappers under bushes, half-burying cans in the sand box). Encourage children to think about how the litter might have ended up in such places – being blown by the wind perhaps, or people hiding litter because they know they shouldn't be dropping it? Help them to explore different ways of retrieving hard-to-reach litter. Encourage all children to work together during the activities, and share their thinking about whether items can be reused.

Creating and thinking critically

  • Children explore the differences between recycling, reusing and discarding
  • Practitioners help children consider what happens when landfill becomes full
  • Children explore the concept of decay, particularly in relation to plastic waste

‘Recycling’ is a complex concept to grasp; making papier-mâché or handmade paper (see Resources) helps to illustrate what it means to recycle. During the ‘Sorting rubbish’ activity, explain to children the difference between recycling and reusing. For example, look at how labels can be added to old envelopes, cardboard packing boxes reused for storage and a cardigan passed onto someone else. Encourage children to assess whether items are ‘single use’ (such as paper towels) or ‘reusable’ (such as fabric towels).

Remind children that anything that can't be reused or recycled ends up in landfill. Emphasise how quickly landfill holes fill up, and explain how all that rubbish is bad for the wildlife living near the site. When a child's model landfill box is full, give them yet more rubbish and talk about what can be done with it. Show children some familiar plastic items and explain that plastics are particularly bad because they don't decay.

Enabling environment

Gather a selection of recyclable waste items, including plastic bottles and lids, clean kitchen foil and foil containers, magazines, newspaper, printer paper, cardboard scraps, boxes and packaging, drinks and food cans (check for sharp edges), sturdy glass jars and clothing. Make a second collection of waste items that cannot easily be recycled, such as bubble wrap, polystyrene packaging, crisp packets, tissue boxes with plastic inserts, plastic bags, plastic postage wraps, paper coffee cups with plastic linings, glittered and foiled greetings cards and wrapping paper with sticky tape. Place ‘recycling’, ‘reusable’ and ‘rubbish’ bins in strategic places throughout the setting, and put out (safe) waste items for children to sort independently. Encourage them to work together.

EYFS Early Learning Goals

Grasping the environmental impact of litter and waste meets the Understanding the World objective: ‘shows care and concern for living things and the environment’. You could also think about how reycling requires mathematical skills, including matching and grouping, and awareness of size, shape, volume and capacity (M). Learning new words linked with waste and recycling meets the Communication and Language objective: extends vocabulary, especially by grouping and naming, exploring the meaning and sounds of new words.

What can practitioners do?

The following are just a few examples of ways to reduce waste:

  • Dispense with unnecessary items altogether. For example, avoid plastic wrapped fruit and vegetables. Most fruit and veg can also be weighed loose and put straight into a (cloth) shopping bag or cardboard box.
  • Replace single or limited-use items with reusable items; for example, washable cloth wipes instead of paper, and wax food wraps instead of cling film. Collect reusable fabric squares for wrapping gifts.
  • Make the setting as plastic free as possible. For example, cloth bags, metal bins, ceramic or glass food storage containers and as many non-plastic toys as possible (ceramic tea sets, wooden bricks, fabric dolls, metal toy cars).
  • Re-use plastic items for as long as possible before replacing, and check your local council policy on what plastics it will accept for recycling.
  • Be aware of items, such as used batteries, that don't fit into the obvious recycling categories (paper/card/glass/cans/plastic bottles). Set up a system for saving such items (adult use only), and make regular trips to your local waste recycling centre.
  • Choosing the most eco-friendly fabrics is a balancing act. Cotton and wool production use more resources than synthetic fibres such as acrylic and polyesters. However, synthetic fibres contribute to microplastic pollution. Organic natural fabrics are probably the greenest choice overall (look out for GOTS certified cotton) - but they are considerably more expensive.

Key points

  • Learning how rubbish and litter affect our environment.
  • Sorting waste items into recycling bins.
  • Exploring the meaning of ‘recycling’ as a concept.
  • Thinking about which waste items can be reused.
  • Discovering what happens to rubbish that can't be recycled or reused.

Key vocabulary:

  • rubbish, litter, recycle, reuse, landfill

Useful resources

  • Interactive ‘recycle it’ wall hanging -

  • For more information on making your setting eco-friendly -

  • How to make your own paper from scrap -

  • Recycling plastic bottle tops –

  • Information from The National Geographic about the environmental impact of plastics –

  • Video footage of a landfill site, aimed at young children –

Keep up to date with Early Years!

Sign up for our newsletter and keep up to date with Early Years education, process and events! We promise we won't spam you!