Reducing Waste on Earth Day One School at a Time

Schools love Earth Day because it’s a kid-friendly time of year to educate and celebrate Mother Earth while taking stock on how we’re measuring up with our waste footprint. A couple years ago, we took the opportunity to audit 2 schools’ waste on Earth Day week, and the impact of the exercise has huge potential. But it’s up to the schools themselves to learn from the experience and find easy ways to change their collective behavior.

This article walks you through an informal audit that can take as little as 1 hour to conduct, if you have a few hands to help. We’ve also cut a short video to inspire you to do your own waste audit in the classroom with the kids. It’s hilarious, because it involves our trash, and enlightening at the same time.

1) Weigh the trash that the school is planning to throw away. In this case, we had 2 weeks’ worth of one school’s trash. There are approximately 45 students and 6 staff in the school.

A Carload of Trash = 2 Weeks' Worth of One School's Waste.

Total Trash Headed to the Landfill = 23.31 lbs.

2) Start sorting! Can anything be diverted? Start with recyclables. This school recycles, but there’s always room for improvement. We found a lot of recyclable paper and plastic in the trash.

We sorted 2 bags'-worth of recyclables out of the landfill-bound trash.

Total Recyclables Diverted from the Landfill: 9.24 lbs.

3) Are there any organics, meaning compostable materials in the trash? Remove them from the trash, pile them up, and weigh them. This school has a Bokashi composter, but there’s always room for improvement.

Compostables Found in the Trash.

Compostable matter is a resource! Put it back in the earth by composting it or sending it to the worm farm.

Throwing away a dried-up plant and soil? We put the soil and plant in the compost and the 4" pot can be reused.

Total Compostables Diverted from the Landfill: 6.27 lbs.

4) Are there any reusable items in the trash? Separate them out and weigh them. A lot of pencils, some clothing, and bookmarks were recovered from the trash for donation to an organization that needs these items.

These pencils can be reused. Photo © Liesl Clark

Total reusable items: 5.76 lbs.

5) Are there any polyethylene plastic bags in the trash? Separate them out and weigh them. We found 45 totally clean trash bags in the waste.

Mount Polyethylene. Photo © Liesl Clark

Total plastic bags: 1.16 lbs.

6) Are there other specialty recycling items in the trash, like scrap metal, batteries, printer cartridges, and styrofoam peanuts? They don’t need to go in the trash.

Packing Peanuts Can Be Recycled at UPS or Freecycled.

Total speciality recycling items: 0.52 lbs.

7) Are any of the compostable items good for chickens to eat? Separate them from the trash and weigh them.

Chicken Vittles, Courtesy of School Lunch.

Total chicken bucket items: 0.36 lbs.

8) Now re-weigh your trash headed to the landfill.

Final Landfill Tally? 3.76 lbs.

Total Trash Headed to Landfill Post-Sort: 3.76 lbs.

That’s a diversion of 19.55 lbs. or 2 and 3/4 trash bins-full. We pay $4.00 per trash can of waste at our transfer station. This waste audit saved the school (or the school’s volunteer who takes the trash to the landfill) $11.00. In one year, that’s a savings of $286.00. For a small school, that’s a significant savings!

How can we keep our school waste down in the future? Here are some simple recommendations that any school can follow to reduce their landfill waste:

Recommendations

1) If your school doesn’t have a composting program in place, consider starting one or a worm bin. Failing that, a parent volunteer who has a farm or garden will happily take your organic waste away for their own compost. See your organics as a resource!

2) Place a small recycle and compost bin next to every landfill trash bin in your school. This way you give everyone a CHOICE.

3) Clean and wet paper towels can be recycled. Place a recycle bin in the bathrooms for this along with a sign reminding people that the bin is for their clean and wet paper towels. Or better yet, lose the paper towels and switch to cloth ones. This school did.

4) Set up specialty recycling containers where appropriate. For example, a plastic bag recycling spot should go in every classroom and in the lunchroom and kitchen. A school volunteer can come and pick up the plastic bags once a week and take them to the grocery store for recycling. I’ve happily done it for our children’s schools for years.

Do the same for other items such as batteries and printer cartridges. These items should never be put into the landfill. Your community will have a recycling location for them, or look “batteries” or “printer cartridges” up in our Trash Backwards app. Staples takes printer cartridges worldwide and most municipal recycling programs have a safe disposal location for batteries.

5) If your school has a pencil sharpening area, place a can near the sharpener for collecting shredded pencil bits for the compost. Also place a donation can for the small pencils that your teacher might want you to throw away. Children at our libraries in Nepal would love those pencils, or let the students take them home for their homework. The image below, shows a yellow pencil stub my son found in a schoolyard outside one of our Magic Yeti Children’s Libraries in Nepal, lined up with the pencils we sorted out of a school’s waste yesterday:

Yellow pencil found in a schoolyard in Nepal vs. the pencils (and shapeners) discarded in a 2-week period by one US school.

The pencils can go to good use in the hands of kids who have no pencils in Nepal.

These discarded colored pencils will bring joy to children living at 14,000 feet in the rainshadow of the Himalaya. Trash. Backwards.

6) Each classroom could have a reuse bin for students to throw items (like the discarded pencils) that others could take for reuse or donation. Some students might be able to use a plastic container that might otherwise be thrown away, for example.

7) Set up a chicken bucket in the food-eating areas. You’ll likely have a family or 2 that have chickens. Getting the students involved in seeing their food waste as a resource for another animal is a good thing. The families can switch off chicken bucket pickup each week. We use a galvanized bucket decorated by our children for our chickens.

6) Be aware of what’s headed to the landfill monthly and set community goals to reduce even further. If your cleaning service doesn’t empty the trash bags but simply removes a bag no matter how much waste is in it and replaces it with another, you might recommend they pour the trash from all your waste bins into a single bag, to conserve plastic trash bags.

This trash bag only had a single dry paper towel in it.

If they use single-use swiffer dusters, perhaps invest in a reusable micro-fiber swiffer duster.

If your school laminates a lot. Consider going lamination-free. Laminate is a non-recyclable plastic, is costly, and isn’t the most healthy material for children to be handling on a daily basis. Using reusable plastic sleeves might be a more sustainable option.

8) Educate parents and students about food packaging used in school lunches. Plastic snack packaging was the single-most thrown-out item in this school’s landfill waste. Encouraging students and staff to find plastic-free options will make a large dent in your overall waste bill. Students, when made aware that plastic is forever, often prefer plastic-free lunches. A popular option to suggest is a “pack it in, pack it out” policy for school lunches, putting the waste onus on parents and students, not the school. Parents can then see what their kids are truly eating, or not, and modify their portions and lunch choices accordingly, saving money and waste.

Single Most Common Item in Landfill Trash = Snack Wrappers.

Have you found this information useful? Share it with others, especially your school!

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