Lessons in recycling

Chris Elliott finds out how a specially designed RCV, Dennis the Dustcart, is helping Dennis Eagle teach schoolchildren about waste and recycling.

Dennis Eagle’s refuse collection vehicles (RCVs) are a familiar sight on the nation’s streets, with thousands of them out and about every day emptying people’s bins.

During the coronavirus crisis, members of the public have even been waving cheerily at them, and applauding, as their crews continue to operate on the front line.

But there is one particular RCV that’s pioneering a new frontier – not out on the road, but in schools.

And although the vehicle has currently been temporarily sidelined because of the lockdown, it has already become an important factor in the crusade to persuade householders to step up recycling rates.

Six years ago, Dennis Eagle decided to plough some of its resources into a project aimed at helping children understand the problems facing the environment, and how it is vital people dispose of their waste correctly.

Some of the giant vehicle manufacturer’s staff had been studying children’s books published by a social enterprise called Skips Educational, which was converting English and maths lessons taught in primary schools into highly engaging, colourful crossword puzzles – and they realised the material could be adapted to promote recycling.

Dennis to the rescue

With Dennis Eagle RCVs bought by local authorities all over the UK, the firm wanted to ‘add value’ to the service it offers them.

The founder of Skips, Ash Sharma, takes up the story. ‘Our books are aimed not only at engaging children, but their parents and, when Dennis Eagle approached us in 2014 and asked if we would be up for doing a project about recycling, we were keen to get involved.

‘It led to me spending six months working with the Dennis Eagle team to understand how they worked, and then come up with a concept we could use as partners.’

The concept was to produce a children’s book, titled Dennis to the Rescue, which would teach youngsters about recycling. Two cartoon characters, in the shape of wheelie bins, Wheelie Good and Wheelie Bad, were created to show how products could be recycled, and what happens to material that ends up going to landfill. The lead character, naturally, is Dennis the Dustcart, who steers young readers through a series of lessons, games and puzzles.

In tandem with the books, a real Dennis the Dustcart has been born – a converted full-size Dennis Eagle refuse lorry, which can (Covid restrictions permitting) visit schools as a mobile classroom.

The truck can be adapted to provide bespoke content supporting local councils’ waste messaging, and features a classroom with comfy benches, whiteboards, and a TV that shows animated videos. There is space on board for around 15 children to participate in lessons and, later, clad in gloves and high-vis vests, they can take part in litter picks.

Promoting sustainable schools

The project is called the Dennis Eagle Sustainable Schools Programme, and Sharma and his team now run it on behalf of the company. Its first foray was as part of a tender by the firm to Birmingham City Council for a £15m vehicle order. The council was switching from black bags to wheelie bins and, as well as rolling out new kit, it wanted householders to understand how the collection system would work.

Sharma says: ‘Some residents were confused about what to put in the bins, and what not to – so we gave out 15,000 Dennis books to every 10-year-old in the city’s schools. They took the books home and, using “pester power”, explained to their mums and dads all about recycling. It was about engagement. If you produce something engaging, people will join in.’

The enthusiasm of the schoolchildren then prompted inquiries from teachers about whether Skips was able to offer training.

Sharma says: ‘There’s a lot about climate change online of course, but many teachers in the city said they would like a simple toolkit that saved hours on preparation time, and which they could use in their lesson plans. We staged training sessions and, in one part of Birmingham, more than 260 teachers took part.’

Tracey Coles, head of one of the schools involved in the Dennis Eagle scheme, Blackwood Primary in Sutton Coldfield, says: ‘Climate change and sustainability subjects such as waste management should be on the curriculum compulsory for all schools. It’s more important that we safeguard our future than anything else we teach.’

Covid-19 has put the programme partly on hold in terms of RCV visits to schools and other events, but the books are still useful for youngsters studying at home, and teacher training can be done through webinars.

And the future is bright. For example, Biffa has begun using the Dennis book, a move that Sharma says has helped the waste firm to clinch a contract with Cornwall Council.

He says: ‘We have engaged hundreds of thousands of families UK-wide with Dennis to the Rescue, and we welcome many more collaborations so we can aim to engage every 10-year-old across the country.’

A Dennis Eagle spokesman adds: ‘We’re very proud of how Dennis to the Rescue has developed into a programme that we can take into the school system. It has been a fantastic journey with the character. Schools absolutely love this resource and it provides genuine social value.’

This feature first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2020 issue of Circular. 

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