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No Fuss ”Green” Projects

By Cara Bafile


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No Fuss Green Projects Included: Several easy green activities for students and teachers.

The Catalog-Canceling
Challenge logo.
Photos courtesy of Ted Wells.

"The Catalog-Canceling Challenge is a pretty simple, free, and fun project that empowers kids and has real impact," says the projects founder, fourth-grade teacher Ted Wells. "Teachers like it, in part because it doesn't cut into their teaching time too much. Most of the work happens at home."

Wells' "challenge" began when a secretary at The Park School in Brookline, Massachusetts, noticed that more than 50 sales catalogs arrived at the school each day -- and most of them went directly into the recycling bin. Shockingly, some were addressed to teachers who had retired ten years earlier. The staff tried to cancel the catalogs, but they couldn't keep up with the mounting mailings. It occurred to Wells and his peers that it might be an empowering project for students to cancel unwanted school and family catalogs in order to save trees, water, energy, and the climate.

"When the kids started to cancel, they blew everyone away," reported Wells. "I thought they'd cancel a few hundred during the 30-day challenge. I built a small bin with one column for each grade. They filled it in only a few days. In the end, 145 kids canceled 4,125 catalogs the first year."

Every year, at the start of this ongoing program, students attend a kick-off assembly to learn about the problem of unwanted catalogs and how to reduce that kind of mail. They view slideshows and videos about the Catalog-Canceling Challenge. Then they do their canceling at home by calling the 1-800 number on the back of each unwanted catalog or by using the free online service Catalog Choice. Next, the students bring in canceled catalogs to school and place them in bins according to their grade level, which creates a dramatic "barometer" of their progress.

"Some kids get so into it that they want to stay in for recess to cancel school catalogs," reports Wells. "We tie in some math work and writing related to the project as well. It's easy to use this for cross-curricular study."


Catalog Countdown

Want to try Ted Wells' simple catalog-cancellation project? He suggests you begin with a powerful introductory assembly.
"Get the kids pumped up to help the planet," advises Wells. "So many kids want to be helpful. They want to do useful, needed work, but rarely have the opportunity. Give it to them."
Another good tip is to construct a very visual catalog storage bin so kids can see their results grow over the 30 days of the "challenge." Wells believes that might have been the key to the success of his own first canceling-catalogs endeavor.

Wells' class also has made a video or two each year to go along with the project. This year, the three grades at The Park School did almost as well as they did during their first challenge, but the task has become more difficult. Many of the students already had canceled most of their catalogs.

The success of the canceling efforts at his school spurred Wells to take his challenge to the world via the Web. "When I saw how well the friendly competition between grades three, four, and five worked at our school, I thought we could challenge other schools," Wells explained. "There's not a prize or true winner, though. Ultimately we're all on the same team -- and planet."

As of this year, 1,507 kids in seven states have canceled 18,054 catalogs. So far, most of the work has been done by schools, but Girl Scout troops also are taking part. In addition, some schools have adopted the program, but neglected to report their results, so the overall impact of the project is likely to be even greater than it appears. The Catalog-Canceling Challenge even caught the eye of NBC news anchor Ann Curry, who interviewed Wells' class live and helped spread the word about the project.

Students canceled 4,125 catalogs in the first year. Wells calculates that the number of canceled catalogs actually represents four times that number if you consider future catalogs not needed. He translates the savings to 231 trees, more than 200,000 gallons of water, and energy savings and CO2 reduction equal to more than eight cars taken off the road. His long-term goal is to cancel 100,000 catalogs and save 1,000 trees.

This year, Wells unveiled a new twist on his project. In partnership with the company Tonic Mail Stopper, he has created a green fundraiser. Students sell to individual households memberships in Mail Stopper, which cancels 90 percent of catalogs and junk mail in 90 days at a cost of $20 -- and the participating school or club keeps half of the fee.

"This project has been done mostly in schools in grades 3-6, yet it could be powerful in high school or college as well, especially if students do the fundraising version of the project," added Wells. "It's not just for schools either. Scouts, sports teams, churches, and so on, are all welcome to try it out."

Students canceled 4,125 catalogs in the first year.

We asked Wells if students had problems being taken seriously when canceling catalogs by phone. He told us, Yes, on occasion when using the phone, kids get questioned by operators. Some students tell me they try to have a parent handy to jump on the line in case that happens. Others say they sometimes use a deeper voice, so it doesn't happen. When kids younger than 8 or 9 take part in our project, obviously more parental involvement is needed. That family involvement in going green is great, I think.

When kicking off the project each year, I recommended to kids that they say My parents have given me permission to cancel this catalog at some point early in the call. Operators just aren't used to kids voices...yet! Maybe if the project really takes off, operators will start hearing kids voices regularly. My fingers are crossed."

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