Desoto County News

Crushing the competition for recycling

Photo: Pleasant Hill Elementary School students Ayshia Howell (grade 5), Jaelie Gabbert (grade 4) and Jackson Lane (grade 4) are shown crushing collected cans ahead of recycling. Howell, Gabbert, and Lane have brought in the most cans to the school in the “Million Cans Recycling Contest.” (Bob Bakken/

There’s been a bit of an ongoing competition underway between schools in Olive Branch and Waco, Texas, and elsewhere, but between these schools in particular. It’s been continuing since near the start of the school year but has really ramped in recent weeks. There’s even been some good-natured “trash” talking going on.  

That’s what we’re talking about. Trash, specifically cans. Cans and where they go once the soda is consumed and tomato sauce becomes your next Italian meal.  

Pleasant Hill Elementary in Olive Branch and La Vega Elementary in Waco are part of a contest among schools in eight states to collect the most cans for recycling during the school year toward a goal of one million cans.  

The eight states that were selected are those with the lowest recycling percentage among all of the states in the country. Of the eight, schools from Mississippi, Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, South Carolina, Alabama, and Pennsylvania are participating in an exercise and contest to improve low recycling percentages. 

Mississippi’s recycling rate is the lowest among the eight states at a meager 11 percent.  

Jessica Alexanderson is among the authors of a children’s book titled, “The Girl Who Recycled One Million Cans.” The girl in the story is Ellie, who wants to protect the environment by recycling metal cans. Along with her friends, she learns that recycling can make a positive difference in the world, and that all metal can be recycled. 

Seeking to promote recycling cans to students, Alexanderson sought one school in each of the eight states to try to reach one million cans collected and recycled. Pleasant Hill Elementary was chosen to represent Mississippi, a challenge the school accepted, said assistant principal Alice Duett.  

“She reached out trying to find one school per state that would be willing to go into this contest to see who could recycle the most cans, trying to get to one million cans,” Duett said. 

Elizabeth Hopper of Iskiwitz Metals in Memphis added, “She (Alexanderson) just found us, called me and said there’s a school in Olive Branch and there’s an aluminum producer in town, Ardagh Metals. She was trying to set up a triangle with a school, recycler and aluminum producer. I pretty much told my boss we were going to do this.”  

The initial effort was to target students in third grade, but it has become a school-wide project to collect cans for drop off at a trailer on campus, a trailer donated by Nesbit Recycling. The can collecting has been going on since October and will continue until May 16. 

The number of cans continues to daily grow, but as many as 134,680 cans at last count have been brought to Pleasant Hill Elementary School since the contest started.

More importantly, students are learning how small moves can provide big results.  

“It helps the environment and everybody can do their part,” Duett said. “The kids come in super excited over the weekend carrying their bags. The goal is for students to realize that even they can have an impact on the community.”  

It’s been a complete citywide effort to get behind what Pleasant Hill is doing. The City of Olive Branch donated up to eight rolling trash bins to put cans in, Iskiwitz Metals, Ardagh, and Nesbit Recycling have been involved. Others adding support have included Republic Services, aluminum trader Ed Clukies at Service Aluminum, and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Services.  

Between all of the schools involved, over 553,000 cans have been received thus far on their way to a goal of one million cans.

Once the cans are brought to school, they are credited to the student bringing them in. The cans are counted and then crushed before they are sent off to be recycled. 

In addition, Pleasant Hill students are taking the tabs off the soda and soup cans and they are donated to the Ronald McDonald House of Memphis. That’s where they help raise funds for programs that support children and families. 

Duett also expressed appreciation for the involvement of everyone in the Pleasant Hill Elementary School community, students, parents, teachers and staff.  

There are prizes involved in the effort as well, including $3,000 to the school that collects the most cans. At Pleasant Hill, in-school incentives have been offered to students bringing the most cans.

“There’s money we get from recycling and the first prize is $3,000 to the school,” Duett said.

“They also get money from the cans that are recycled,” Hopper explained. “I keep a spreadsheet of the loads that come in. At the end of the contest, I will write a check to the school for the cans that have been brought to us on their behalf.” 

Through Nesbit Recycling, Pleasant Hill is getting 35 cents per pound for the cans and Iskiwitz is adding an additional price of at least 10 cents per pound, based on the market price.  

Then there’s the “trash” talking. Apparently some good-natured messaging through social media has been going on between the Texas school and Pleasant Hill, hoping to inspire each other to be on top when the contest ends on May 16. While Pleasant Hill is encouraging support from their students, La Vega is pushing their students to see Texas win.  

“Their community interaction is just amazing,” Hopper said of La Vega Elementary. “So, I may have been on Facebook razzing them a little bit on behalf of our school, along the lines of, ‘Texas, we see you, but Mississippi is going to show you how it’s done.’ It’s just a friendly little competition.”  

As of this writing, Pleasant Hill ranked second among the schools in average number of cans per student who received a free copy of Alexaderson’s book, which was offered to third graders. A school in Newburgh, Indiana was first in that category.  But, Pleasant Hill is first in total number of cans recycled with La Vega Elementary second.

A leaderboard is posted on the Scrap University Million Cans Recycling Contest website.   

The environment is still the big winner in all of this, both now and in the future as youngsters in states not known to be all that good in recycling learn how little actions “can” make a big difference.