Trash or treasure? This is a game I play with students when we are out walking. On a beach, the options could be seashells, balloons, or sticks. Near a creek, we find plastic bottles, newspaper, or smooth glass. Some finds are more easy to categorize than others. This exercise is a way we take the tried-and-true slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” and add a creative element — rethink!

More students, adults, and artists are turning trash into treasure to make a statement about our environment. Passion for conservation is directing creative projects to fuse the arts into our STEM landscape, creating the new acronym; STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math.

Here are a few creative ways that artistic inspiration, drawn from the world around us, has ignited environmental initiatives:

Recycled school mascots. Students combined their school pride with concern for the environment to create mascots made of discarded and unneeded items. Sizes, materials, and colors varied among the dozens of school mascots that were on display in Northern Virginia, at the School Environmental Action Showcase.

Students used pencil shavings, cardboard boxes, snack wrappers, wax-coated cups, and more, combined with paint, glue, wire, and other artistic materials to create sculptures. In one piece, elementary school students made a dolphin mascot by spending several days after school mathematically designing how pieces of trash could hang together to create the shape of the animal. Amazing!

Public art. Kids aren’t the only ones having all the fun. In Florida, a public art show includes pieces from local artists to reflect community interests. Discarded bicycle tires create an interactive, kinetic sculpture. Also, cinder blocks and a hanging shoe rack are repurposed into a solar-powered garden that’s accented with hand-painted tiles.

Recycled art that educates. The Washed Ashore program builds and exhibits powerful art to educate a global audience about plastic pollution in oceans and waterways and spark positive changes in consumer habits. Based in Oregon, this exhibit travels to amaze visitors with giant sea life sculptures made entirely of marine debris collected from beaches.

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