Exploring the Waste Management Ideas for Schools


Reducing waste and improving recycling and composting programs are increasingly important issues for schools. As educators, it is our responsibility to teach students the importance of environmental stewardship and sustainability. Effective waste management programs in schools can help generate these valuable learning opportunities while also decreasing the environmental impact of school operations. This article will provide a comprehensive overview of waste management ideas that K-12 schools can implement to better manage their waste streams.

Current Waste Practices in Schools

To understand how schools can improve, it is first important to examine current waste management practices. Unfortunately, many schools are still sending a large percentage of recyclable and compostable materials to the landfill. On average:

Paper comprises over 25% of the municipal solid waste stream in the United States. Yet many schools do not have effective paper recycling programs in place. Common paper items like notebooks, worksheets, and printer paper end up in the trash.

Food waste makes up over 15% of municipal solid waste nationwide. Due to health codes and cleanup concerns, most schools do not compost food scraps or soiled paper products from the cafeteria. This valuable organic material goes to waste in garbage dumps.

Plastics, metals, and glass account for over 30% of solid waste generation. While some schools have basic recycling bins, they are often not clearly labeled and many items still get routinely thrown away instead of being recycled.

Hazardous wastes like fluorescent lights, batteries, chemicals, and electronics often do not have dedicated collection programs. Schools may not be properly disposing of these toxic items, creating environmental and health risks.

Many schools lack effective educational programs to teach students about recycling, composting, and sustainability. Without student and staff engagement, long-term waste diversion goals will be difficult to achieve.

There is certainly room for improvement in most schools’ current waste practices. The following sections provide overviews of different waste streams and practical, low-cost ideas schools can implement to better manage their materials and educate students. With commitment and creativity, schools can significantly reduce what they send to landfills and incinerators.

Paper Waste Reduction and Recycling

Paper comprises one of the largest portions of school waste. However, simple changes can help schools recycle more of this valuable resource. Here are some recommendations:

Provide clearly labeled paper recycling bins in all classrooms, offices, teacher work rooms, and other common areas. Make recycling as convenient as tossing something in the trash.

Educate students and staff about what can and cannot be recycled as paper. Common items include notebooks, loose leaf paper, newspapers, magazines, mail, and paper packaging. Soiled paper or items with food should be composted instead of recycled.

Switch to digital documents and online storage when possible to reduce paper usage. Options include digital report cards, online newsletters, digital textbooks, and paperless file storage.

Implement a school-wide paper reduction policy. Options include printing double-sided, using scrap paper for assignments, and encouraging staff to print only necessary materials. Turn unused paper over to art classes for projects.

Start a paper recycling competition between classrooms to boost participation. Publicly track recycling rates and offer a small prize to the winning classroom each month.

Partner with local paper recycling facilities. Some will provide the school with a portion of revenue generated from recycling as an incentive to increase diversion rates.

Audit paper usage annually to set reduction goals and track progress over time. A 10-15% reduction in paper usage is certainly achievable with focused efforts.

By making paper recycling as routine as taking out the trash, schools can keep hundreds of pounds of this valuable material from the landfill annually. Paired with efforts to reduce unnecessary paper usage, recycling programs provide environmental and financial benefits.

Plastics, Metals, Glass, Cartons Recycling

While paper is a major component, other co-mingled recycling items like plastics, metals, glass, and cartons also represent a large portion of school waste. Methods to improve recycling of these materials include:

Provide multi-stream carts or bins for plastics (#1-#7), metals, glass bottles and jars, cartons and aseptic boxes in all rooms. Label bins clearly with what items belong in each.

Promote recycling of plastic water bottles, juice boxes, aluminum cans and foil from the cafeteria and elsewhere on campus. These are commonly recycled materials.

Work with vendors to switch to recyclable or compostable food serviceware when possible instead of non-recyclable plastics and foils.

Host recycling drives for specific hard-to-recycle items like plastic bag film or Styrofoam. Collect these periodically and take to appropriate drop-off locations.

Partner with local municipal recycling programs and waste haulers. Their educational materials and collection schedules can help schools implement effective co-mingled recycling programs.

Teach students which plastics are recyclable through demonstration. Show which containers, labels, shapes, etc. are acceptable to curb contamination.

Recycle electronics through certified e-waste recycling facilities. Items like old computers and cell phones contain valuable and toxic materials that require safe end-of-life handling.

Schools that make recycling as accessible as throwing items in the trash will see significant diversion of plastics, metals and glass from the waste stream with minimal effort. Periodic educational campaigns also reduce common contamination issues.

Composting Food Scraps and Organics

Food waste represents both an opportunity and a challenge for schools due to health code constraints. However, with proper planning schools can implement outdoor or indoor composting systems to keep this valuable resource out of landfills. Here are some composting recommendations

Provide bins in the cafeteria for collecting uneaten food scraps and compostable serviceware in centralized areas to make them easy for students and staff to use.

Work with the local health department to ensure any outdoor or indoor composting systems meet regulations. Adequate size, location, and pest controls are important.

Consider vermicomposting with worms indoors if outdoor space is limited. Worm bins break down food scraps very efficiently with minimal odor issues.

Use composted material on school gardens or donate it to local farms. This “closes the loop” by putting composted nutrients back into agricultural systems.

Involve students through a compost club or class projects. Hands-on learning about decomposition helps students understand nature and value of composting.

Weigh and track compost collections over time to set diversion goals and analyze progress cutting food waste disposal costs.

With careful planning, all schools regardless of size or location can establish composting programs. This keeps valuable organics out of landfills to be reused as a soil amendment. It also supports environmental and agricultural education opportunities for students.

Hazardous Waste Collection and Disposal

School labs, art rooms, garages and maintenance areas often generate various hazardous wastes like batteries, chemicals, lightbulbs, paint and solvents that require proper handling per regulations. Suggestions for schools include:

Identify all hazardous materials and wastes generated. Know what is considered hazardous (flammable, toxic, corrosive, reactive) versus regular trash.

Provide labeled secondary containment for hazardous liquids and designate separate storage areas per fire code and environmental regulations.

Host annual household hazardous waste collection events and advertise to the whole community to bring items to the school for safe disposal at no fee.

Partner with a hazardous waste disposal company to visit the school for an education session and collection of wastes identified previously.

Appoint a staff member to oversee hazardous materials policies and inventories. Ensure Safety Data Sheets are filed properly and workers receive necessary training.

Consider applying for an EPA hazardous waste generators identification number to properly dispose of larger amounts generated by auto shop, woodshop or labs per legal requirements.

Properly collecting, storing, documenting and disposing of all hazardous waste streams, no matter the quantity, protects workers, students and the environment from harmful exposure. It also helps schools avoid compliance issues.

Education and Outreach Programs

While infrastructure improvements are important, programs that educate and engage students and staff are critical aspects of any successful school waste management system. Suggested methods include:

Create hands-on recycling and composting lessons tied to grade-level science standards about the importance of natural cycles and environmental protection.

Develop a green team club for students interested in waste reduction projects ranging from audits to organics collections to educational campaigns.

Host annual campus clean-up events and recycling drives by grade level, tied to incentives or friendly competition between classrooms.

Display educational posters and signage by bins to remind occupants what items are recyclable, compostable or hazardous waste. Include statistics about diversion goals.

Publish a monthly or quarterly waste reduction newsletter showcasing green team activities and announcing events or new initiatives.

Survey students and staff annually about attitudes and awareness of the recycling/composting programs to identify educational needs and track engagement over time.

Partner with local environmental non-profits or municipal departments for campus tours, after school workshops and special learning opportunities.

Consider applied learning projects with older students to research solutions to specific waste issues like hard-to-recycle plastics or food waste reduction.