How to make your school Zero Waste

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

I know school has been back in session for a while now whether online or in person, but I wanted to talk about how to be more low waste at school anyway. A lot of zero waste activists talk about where to buy low waste school supplies and I think that is great and that is not what this post is about. Rather, I’d like to focus on more actions we can take around school to help reduce our impact and educate others as well.



I was inspired to make this video by my mom who is a teacher! My mom and her students began a recycling program since their school did not have one. They even went and toured the area's recycling facility to learn more. Since then, she and I have been brainstorming other ways that teachers, students, and even their caregivers can help reduce their impact at and around school. And if you’re a principal or member of a school board, there is a lot more you can do to make bigger actions so I included some bigger changes as well.



I have these broken out in categories for students, teachers/administration, and caregivers though anyone can really implement any item from each category, they are just best suited for the category they are in.


Not to mention, all tips can be used in middle schools, high schools, and even college campuses!


Let’s jump right in!


STUDENTS


1. Recycle! Most schools at the bare minimum have paper recycling. If they have recycling for other materials, take advantage of it!


2. Make sure you’re recycling properly, too. My mom’s school, for example, can only accept whole sheets of paper, not shredded. Be sure to check out this video here to learn more about what you cannot put in general recycling bins. This includes wet wipes, paper towels, paper and plastic plates, bowls, cutlery, and more.


3. If your school doesn’t already recycle, consider starting a program. I started a program in Texas and my mom started one in Ohio. It’s really not that difficult! You just need some designated bins, let people know what they can and cannot recycle, and see if your area's recycling facility can make a trip to come to pick it up.


4. Use supplies you already have or that you find second hand. Surely you have old notebooks and folders and binders from years past. Use these before buying new, even if your new items are sustainably made. The most sustainable thing is the thing you already have!


5. Start a club or a community for like-minded people. You can use these groups to swap clothing and supplies or use them to start rallies and educational events or city/beach clean-ups. This can even be a team of zero waste ambassadors to help teach others about recycling, host pep rallies, host clean-ups and so forth.


6. Utilize or create a food take back section in the cafeteria. Here’s what I mean: a lot of cafeterias don’t let you take only what you will eat. This often leads to extra fruit cups, milk, juices, and other wrapped items to be taken but not consumed. Some schools have bins where students can drop off these unopened items and someone else can have an extra!


7. If your school doesn’t make you take one of everything, take only what you will consume as to prevent food waste


8. If you have the option, take the school bus. This is a completely free mode of transportation and will save you gas money and save more cars from being on the road.


9. If that doesn’t work for you, carpool with classmates


10. Take it even further and walk or ride your bike if you have access to that



11. If your school offers online or used textbooks, opt for that instead of brand new books


12. Host a zero-waste/recycling assembly! Put together some material and educate your whole grade or the whole school or just walk around giving presentations in each classroom. You can talk about recycling, climate change, and so forth.


13. Start a school community garden. This is a great opportunity for students to learn about gardening and for them to learn to cook as well. You can even compost too!


14. Create posters (out of recycled or repurposed paper) to spread the message. It can be anything from advertising recycling, educating people on turning off the lights and the water, or whatever else you are passionate about. You can hang them in the halls, bathrooms, and such


15. Add recycle bins to the cafeteria as most plastics will be produced there


16. If you have the power, change individual sauce packets and tubs or the large pump-style ones


17. Anyone can create a petition! You can create petitions for all these things. If you want different things in the cafeteria or recycling bins, get people to sign a petition to get them implemented


18. This goes for anyone, too, use both sides of the paper and use the whole notebook!


19. Or, better yet, use Google docs or another similar site to go paperless


20. Okay, senior pranks are fun but don’t make it a burden on the earth, too. For example, one year the seniors blocked the parking lot and had a cookout. It was zero waste! Other classes saran wrapped everything which is super wasteful. So have fun, but do it responsibly



TEACHERS


1. Save old supplies from your students at the end of the year so students the next year can use them as needed


2. Do a classroom trash audit. I did a trash audit in February and all you do is collect all your non-food related trash to see what you use throughout a week or a month. This can help you determine what you can omit, what you can buy in different materials, and so forth.


3. Host a field trip to a waste facility management site, recycling facility, community compost or gardening location, and so forth


4. Science teachers, there is a lot of potentials for you to incorporate studies about climate change as well as art teachers for upcycled art projects! History teachers, you can discuss important climate activists throughout history to include the creation of earth day


5. Encourage students to bring their own utensils and collect unused plasticware


6. Pair with TerraCycle to recycle odds and ends like markers, office supplies, juice pouches, and so forth


7. Teachers, try to encourage plastic-free days! Maybe the first of every month or every Monday or something, encourage students to use no single-use plastic if possible



8. Avoid laminating if possible. It is literally just wasted plastic and then the paper can’t be recycled either


9. Teachers, quit requesting NEW items. Encourage students to reuse what they already have


10. In the age of digital technology, teachers, I encourage you to send out e-notifications instead of paper flyers. Same with students. If you need to announce something use your school’s social media or an email or online newsletter system as opposed to plastic.


11. If your school/classroom has a lot of windows, use natural light and switch the lights off!


12. Save decorations from past years to reuse in the future


13. Teach students about the importance of donating. Donate old office supplies, toys, books, and more and buy new object second hand for your classroom


14. Band teachers, encourage your past students to donate old instruments to the school so future students can use them. As well as music stands, practice books, and so forth


15. Instead of a wasteful bbq or water balloon fight, host a community service day. I know it might sound boring, but we did this at my high school. Every year, one day out of the year we would all get together with a group of friends and get assigned to a community service project throughout the neighborhood. This is a great, free, and zero waste activity to do as a school. We did things from wax the firetrucks to lawn work to reading to preschoolers.


16. If your school does do a field day or something, brainstorm low waste activities. Avoid water balloon fights and other things that will create a lot of waste.




CAREGIVERS


1. Caregivers, encourage your students to pack low waste lunches with packageless foods like carrots and apples or even by using reusable containers and bags


2. Teach your students to use what they have and only buy what they need


3. Offer to carpool for your neighborhood


4. Make second-hand shopping popular again. Get back to school clothes and bookbags and such second hand and make it just as fun as regular shopping. If you want to learn more about fast fashion, you can watch this video or read this post.



A tip for everyone, be an advocate for the earth. If you and a group of like-minded people continue to educate your school staff, the more action that can happen. Let your administrators know that the school can save money by using less electricity and water and paper and plastic. Money is always a good factor to motivate someone to live less wastefully.


Here’s a good link to a free zero waste curriculum targeted for K-5. I tested it and you don’t have to be a teacher! It has information as well as activities to help students learn more about zero waste but I found it helpful as well and recommend everyone download it as it’s completely free! It offers other books and resources as well as helpful definitions.


This link here is another good guide to creating a lower waste school


Here are some other great resources


And one last guide for you


Thank you so much for reading along. I hope this was helpful and inspires you to create a more zero waste school! Students, no matter how young you might be, you are powerful. Your actions can be multiplied and create real change within your school. Teachers/administrators, use your power within the school for good!


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As always, remember that the small changes you make have a big impact in the long run :)


Emma