When reading an Earth Day children’s book to a group of about 20 attentive and quiet students at North Pittsburgh Children’s House, Graham Rihn, founder of RoadRunner Recycling, got to a section with tips for protecting the Earth. The first item on the list, recycling, excited one student enough to break the silence.
“That was my idea!” one student shouted as soon as Rihn read it.
RoadRunner and North Pittsburgh Children’s House teamed up for an event at the Montessori school on Earth Day 2022 that included storytime and arts and crafts with recycled materials.
The engaged students listened to the story and offered suggestions when Rihn ended the reading by asking for other ways people can help the Earth. Immediately, most of the students’ hands went up, and just about all of them said something to the group. Their suggestions included picking up garbage, planting flowers and turning off lights after leaving a room.
RoadRunner provided recycled egg cartons, pastry boxes, plastic bottles and more for the students to cut, glue and fold into art projects. Some trimmed construction paper into the shapes of animals, others slapped together whatever seemed intuitive and cool.
“Having Earth Day be a day that is celebrated by all is such a difference from previous decades,” Rihn said at the event. “I really feel it this year, that Earth Day is important to the masses for the first time.”
Earth Day, a holiday created in 1970, tasks communities with a series of activities related to environmentalism, such as planting trees, engaging in activism, and learning about proper ways to recycle.
In recent years, debate has ignited about the current recycling system in the United States, leading some environmental advocates to de-emphasize recycling in favor of efforts like plastic bans and reduced use because of the sheer amount of garbage generated, despite recycling efforts. In 2018, the United States recycled about 32% of its garbage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. From 2000 to 2018, the recycling rate has hovered between 28.5% and 35%. Only 9% of plastics were recycled in 2018, compared to 25% of glass and 68% of paper.
Some are still invested in recycling and believe it can be done better. Rihn created RoadRunner, a Pittsburgh-based company that manages recycling for businesses, because the way the United States handles recycling and waste upset him so much. He believes the private sector needs to innovate and find ways to incentivize businesses to recycle better.
“Recycling is just really behind,” Rihn told PublicSource before the event. “And… it really shouldn’t be that way.”
Rihn believes one of the biggest problems with recycling in the U.S. is that the country’s waste industry is largely controlled by a few massive companies that make a lot of profit from running landfills.
RoadRunner, whose clients include PNC Bank, Allegheny Health Network and Chick-fil-A, assists businesses find ways to recycle better, by taking precautions that, for example, avoid the contamination and missorting that hampers recycling. Important to RoadRunner’s pitch to businesses is that they recommend methods that save money.
“Trying to educate the next generation about recycling is something that we got really excited about,” Rihn said, explaining that RoadRunner is working to be more involved with the community.
Events like this are new for the North Pittsburgh Children’s House, according to co-founder Marla Pettit. She’s happy with how it went.
“They’re doing great. They’re certainly enjoying themselves. It’s nice. It’s creative,” Pettit said at the event.
Matt Petras is an independent writer and educator based in the Pittsburgh area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mattApetras.
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