To ZWAP!, or Not To ZWAP!

By Hillary Sward

ZWAP!: Zero Waste Ambassadors Program; the sound of knocking out waste in Missoula

ZWAP!ed: ex. You’ve been ZWAP!ed!;  To have participated in the Zero Waste Ambassadors Program

ZWAP!ing: ex. I am ZWAP!ing tomorrow; facilitating ZWAP!

Noun, verb, or otherwise, all forms of ZWAP! are a part of our vocabulary here at Home ReSource.

ZWAP! has taken off in Missoula.  A few classes experience ZWAP! in the fall and very early after the start of the new year, but most classrooms are ZWAP!ed February through May.  The first phase of classroom ZWAP!ings is nearly finished, and we are fully in field trip mode.  Each portion of the program brings different opportunities for myself and the 5th graders I work with, phase two potentially seeing more of an online, interactive presence.

Although designed for young Missoulians, ZWAP! is suitable for all ages.  The goal is to get these kids (and people in general) to think more critically about materials that move through the Materials Economy, specifically where they come from, where they go, and how we can change that system.  Desired outcomes of ZWAP! are to have students become engaged in problem solving around waste, to be empowered with the skills and knowledge to be a Zero Waste Ambassador, and to inspire them to knock out waste in Missoula.

Our ZWAP! invitation outlines a lot of what we want to see as a result of being ZWAP!ed, including our theory of change.

Our objective is to empower youth with the knowledge that the choices they make and the actions they take can help create a more sustainable future.

We believe that as students become knowledgeable about waste, increase their understanding of how to reduce it, and feel empowered that their choices and actions can make a positive difference, they will share their knowledge with peers and adults, evaluate where waste happens in their lives, and choose to make changes to move toward a Zero Waste lifestyle. We further believe that if this transformation takes place in a school district that is actively pursuing a Zero Waste goal, the likelihood of lasting behavior change will increase – and we are working with Missoula County Public Schools on getting to zero waste!

ZWAP! reaches hundreds of fifth graders every year, many of them eager to take action and embody what it means to be a Zero Waste Ambassador.  By the end of the program, if students agree to take one or more of our ambassador actions, then they are invited to sign our ZWAP! wall and become Zero Waste Ambassadors.  And who wouldn’t love a chance to write on a wall?  One of the first two field trips this spring pushed the ZWAP! wall to over 3,000 names!  That’s 3,000 students who now have the knowledge and desire to reduce waste in their homes, schools, and communities.

So what does a good ZWAP!ing look like? There are two components to a typical ZWAP! experience, the very first and nearly last things being the quiz to measure change in knowledge.  Part one is a classroom visit starting off with our quiz and followed by a presentation and discussion of the Materials Economy, our current system of stuff, and the global impacts (like climate change) it has.  After the quiz, we dig into our mystery suitcase to grab items for our discussion – what are these things, where do they come from, what are they made out of, etc.  We discuss the unnatural shape of the Materials Economy (linear) and how it differs from naturally functioning systems (cyclical) and work to find choices and actions that we can use to make a difference, changing that linear system into one much like Earth’s natural systems.  Every classroom presentation I am surprised, sometimes caught off guard, by the thoughtfulness of the questions and answers, and just the bizarre knowledge some 5th graders possess.  Why can’t we send our garbage into space, the sun, or a black hole? Won’t people be out of a job if the landfills aren’t as busy? Will businesses suffer if we reduce what we buy?  Didn’t they used to line rivers with cars to try to stop erosion?  We can’t reuse nuclear waste? The list goes on and on.

Within the few weeks following the class visit, each class has the opportunity to come to Home ReSource for a three hour long field trip where we play ZWAP! the game to recreate the Materials Economy and review much of what they learned during the classroom presentation, tour Home ReSource and learn about who we are and what we do, go on a Reuse Scavenger Hunt around the store, and other hands on activities to learn and think about Zero Waste.  We also discuss what it means to be a Zero Waste Ambassador, what good things can happen when we make choices to reduce waste, and that although recycling is harder than it seems, we can still do it!  For the first two fifth grade teams (all teachers at one school) to sign up for both the classroom visit and field trip, we take them to the landfill to get a first-hand view of where “away” really is, when we throw things out.  A Republic Employee gives a short lecture on the landfill, and then it opens up to a Q&A from the students.  This process is where 5th graders’ thoughtfulness really shines through.  Being in the landfill, standing on and being surrounded by the things we throw away can spark some incredible questions and discussion points which all contribute to ZWAP!’s objectives.

Education has been the only constant in my professional history, and I am still amazed every time I present in a classroom or have kids at Home ReSource for a field trip or other activity.  Most of them thoroughly enjoy learning about things that they can see and act on.  One student has come to love Home ReSource and ZWAP! so much, that he asks for our autographs whenever he sees us at different events or out and about wearing Home ReSource gear.  Students encourage (or bother) their parents to make changes in their homes when it comes to recycling and composting.  Through drawings and letters, we know that several kids take all of ZWAP! to heart and they are soon going to be leaders in the Zero Waste World.

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