Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

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Schools throw away a lot of trash, most of which goes to landfill. But what if some of the items we send to the landfill could go elsewhere instead? Almost half of school waste is organics like food and yard cuttings and around 30 percent is paper—we can do better!

Recycling varies in different communities around the U.S. and the world, but it can include paper, plastics, glass, aluminum, and electronic waste. Many schools are also beginning composting programs for school lunch food, either collecting the food for on-site composting or sending it to a commercial composting center.

Measure your impact

Track the pounds of garbage diverted from the landfill this year or just on your day of action. The best way to measure the change you’ve made is to do a waste audit before and after your project and assess the difference in what is going to landfill.

Get started

  • First, be a garbage detective; find out where the garbage generated at your school goes. Who collects it? Where is it sent? Is any of it separated into different types of trash first?
  • What does your school do with old computers or electronics?
  • Your school may already have a recycling and/or composting program. If it does, learn more about it and begin an education campaign at the school with signage and presentations about what students and teachers should do with particular kinds of waste. Promote recycling in your school by posting signs by garbage bins or providing additional containers to collect recyclables.
  • If your school doesn’t have a program, talk with your principal or facilities staff to see what it would take to begin one. Check out these tips for setting up your program from Keep America Beautiful.
  • Schools produce a lot of paper waste that can be recycled right at school, simply by re-using the unprinted side of the paper. Find creative ways to reduce the amount of paper your school uses or to reuse the waste paper.
  • Connect student learning with sustainability action. For this topic, you can access a free module in English and Spanish for high school students called, "Waste Eco-Audit," through the Learning Lab platform. On the website, you can find other high-quality classroom content — over 450 lessons —
    for teachers from kindergarten to high school. To locate more lessons about the waste stream, search by theme, learning standard, teaching method, or keyword.

Additional resources

  • Check the Green Strides portal from the Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools program for updated resources from federal agencies and partners.
  • Learn about a typical school’s waste composition and find resources for your own assessment at CalRecycles.
  • Recycling can be stymied by inconsistent messages and confusing labels. You can get help and donations of simple, well-designed labels from Recycle Across America.
  • In many parts of the world there is an informal system of people who pick through the trash first before it reaches the city garbage truck. Learn more about global waste management challenges and solutions from Global Communities, an organization developing systems such as the Kasa Rasa facility in Bangalore, India, to make sure toxins from waste don’t pollute the environment and to improve working conditions for people who collect and recycle garbage.
  • Recycle-Bowl is a great way to encourage schools to start recycling programs, encourage them to recycle more, and educate students about why recycling is important. Around 1,500 schools participate each year. On average, these schools recycle 10 percent more than schools that do not participate.