Fourth-graders Ruth Gordon, left, Jimena Alvarado and Jaqueline Mutuku are members of the 30-student Green Team that collect paper for recycling at Great Seneca Creek Elementary School in Germantown. (Ricky Carioti/THE WASHINGTON POST)

At 2:30 in the afternoon at Great Seneca Creek Elementary School, a loud rumbling takes over the hallway. An earthquake? No. A herd of elephants? No. It’s three members of the school’s Green Team pushing a rumbly blue bin down the upstairs hallway. Another three-kid Green Team squad works the first floor of the Germantown school. Their mission? Collecting discarded paper from every classroom and office for recycling.

Made up of about 30 students in third through fifth grade, the Green Team recycles and teaches others about helping the Earth’s environment. Recently, they made special light-switch covers to remind teachers to turn off the lights when they leave the room. For Earth Day, they held a trash pickup on the school grounds.

For the past six years, Great Seneca Creek has been recognized as a LEED school by the U.S. Green Building Council. “LEED” stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Great Seneca is one of 61 schools in Maryland, Virginia and Washington that have been recognized for having a building that focuses on energy conservation and being friendly to the environment.

That focus is obvious throughout the school. In the main lobby, a mural shows the Earth’s water cycle, from clouds on the ceiling to tiles in the floor representing the stream that the school is named after. Students often take tests on laptops to conserve paper. In the restrooms, they use waterless urinals (no flushing required), dual-flush toilets (which use less water for liquid waste) and motion-activated sinks to save water and learn about water conservation. Students learn about energy conservation in classrooms that have large windows to allow in natural light and sloped ceilings that help save electricity.

“With so many reminders in our building, it becomes a part of students’ lives to make everyday choices that are good for the environment,” Principal Greg Edmundson says.

A mural in the main lobby of Great Seneca Creek Elementary School illustrates the earth’s water cycle. (From Great Seneca Creek Elementary School)

And, of course, the students recycle paper on a daily basis.

But being part of the Green Team isn’t always easy, fun or clean! “When we’re picking up paper for recycling, a lot of times your foot gets run over by the bins,” says 10-year-old fourth-grader Justice McWilliams. Her teammate, Jimena Alvarado, also 10 and in fourth grade, reports a few paper cuts. But these kids are determined. At their school, they not only learn about ecology but also live it.

“Recycling paper matters,” Jimena says. “Trees give us air to breathe. If we recycle paper in school, we save trees.”

The hardest part of the paper collection job, fifth-grader Andrew Stein says, is not the squished toes or paper cuts. It’s finding trash and bottles mixed in with the paper. In those cases, paper that’s mixed with trash and bottles cannot be recycled. “If I find bottles or trash in with the paper, I dig it out and put it in the correct bin. It’s important,” 11-year-old Andrew says.

“I love recycling and helping the Earth,” Justice says. “Even something small, like putting trash and bottles in the right place, helps.”

After all the small bins — including ones from the the principal’s office and the cafeteria — have been emptied into the big bins, the kids roll the heavy loads of paper back to the janitor. For the upstairs team, this means wheeling the bin onto the elevator. The janitor then puts the paper out for collection.

“Everyone should help recycle,” Jimena says. “Then when the recycling truck comes, we know that maybe we just saved a tree.”

— Kitson Jazynka