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Recycling Sort Relay

In this activity, students are challenged to sort household waste items into their appropriate bins in a relay. Students must choose an item from the discarded material and sort the items into one of the following bins:

  • mixed paper
  • newspaper
  • containers (glass, metal, and plastic triangles 1, 2, 4, and 5)
  • garbage
  • compostable material

These bins represent the categories that the City of Vancouver splits waste into. Taking time to sort our waste properly can reduce garbage output and help out garbage and recycling collectors.

Items from all of these categories are sent to be turned into another product. In comparison, items sent to a landfill sit, take up space, and leach out toxic chemicals. If these items are not dealt with; they are wasted. Even items that normally can be broken down, like organic waste, breaks down far slower in a landfill.

In Metro Vancouver alone, we throw away almost 1.5 million tonnes of garbage annually, and many of the items don’t even belong in the garbage!


  • Identify recyclable materials and sort household waste.


  • Per Student:
    1-2 waste items

  • Per Group:
    1 large bag
    1 pair of gloves

  • Per Class:
    1 set of labelled sorting bins and bags

Key Questions

  • Why are certain items considered garbage? Ask students to explain their choices.
  • Why is sorting our waste into categories important? What happens when we don’t?
  • What happens to compost? How long does it take compost to break down?
  • How long does it take glass to break down?
  • How long does it take plastic to break down?
  • Where does garbage go once it leaves your home or school?

What To Do


Fill bags with equal amounts of waste items. Ensure that each bag has a balance of all 5 categorical items. Some tricky ones would be cotton clothing (compost), newspaper (compost/recycling), plastic bags/Styrofoam/CDs (garbage)

Teacher Tips: 

  • Its easier to use clean garbage/recyclables items for this activity. You can ask students/other teachers to bring clean plastic containers/bottles and cotton clothing from home.
  • If you are using real compostable items, make sure to put any potentially moldy food items in plastic bags and tape the seal.

Set Up

  1. Line up sorting bins on one side of the classroom. There should be one bin for mixed paper, one for newspaper, one for containers, one for compost, and one for garbage.
  2. Make a line one meter away from bins to separate the sorting area from the group line up area.  This will be the start line.
  3. Divide class into four or five groups and ask them to line up facing the sorting bins starting at the start line.
  4. Place the bag of waste items between the lines and the bins.
  5. Place a pair of gloves in front of each group of students.


  1. The first student in each line puts on the gloves, runs to the bag, grabs an item and decides which bin it belongs in. Teammates can verbally support each other.
  2. Place item in appropriate bin and run back. Take off the gloves, hand them to the next student in line and sit down at the back of their lines.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 with each consecutive person in line.
  4. The game ends when the bags are empty or when everyone has had a turn and is sitting down (the team of students who are all seated wins).
  5. Go over the contents of the bins as a class and ask students to explain the placement of certain items or help correct misplaced items.
  6. Encourage hand washing, as needed.


  • What happens to compost? What can we use compost for?
  • Do a garbage audit of your classroom. Does the garbage output change over time?