How To Do A Classroom Waste Audit

By Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller

Conducting a classroom waste audit is a hands-on way for kids to learn how to reduce their waste at school. Whether kindergarteners or highschoolers, waste audits resonate with students of all ages because everyone handles trash on a daily basis. Zero waste in schools takes commitment from both teachers and students and we’d like to be your hub for learning the process and obtaining the tools necessary to make your waste audits a success. This simple guide is an easy resource to get you started with waste audits in your classrooms or schools in your community. If you have any questions or need any further resources, don’t hesitate to contact us at Trash Backwards, and the following video is to inspire you to get into classrooms, have fun, and teach students these simple steps to school waste reduction!

If you’re not a teacher, you’ll first need to obtain permission from the school to do your audit. Meet with the school’s principal or director and pitch the idea. If you have to get permission for a larger body, like a school board, here’s a sample letter you can edit to make the formalities easy for you.

Materials Needed:

1 Tarp for the floor or plastic table cloths to cover tables

1 Scale

2 Buckets with the tare weight written on their sides

Paper and Sharpies for making 2 charts

Small signs for “compost,” “recycling,” “reuse,” and “landfill.”

10 Simple Steps

1) Save 1 days’-worth of classroom trash, including food waste.

2) Tell your personal story about why you’ve discovered how important it is to reduce waste. You can do  a slideshow, showing the students pictures of their landfill, how a landfill (or incinerator) works, how far away it is, and how trash is transported there. We have a movie about how our children discovered plastics washing up on their beaches that you can download or play off the web here as a teaching tool, showing how kids can take action, learn where the ocean plastics are coming from, and what they can do about it.

3) Weigh your recyclables and trash separately.

4) Spread it all out on a tarp.

5) Have the students separate all items into discreet piles next to their appropriate signs: “Compost,” “recycling,” “reuse,” and “landfill.”

6) Teach recycling: Discuss what goes into your local recycling and help the students identify those items.

7) Start a composter, vermicomposter, or chicken bucket. Some classrooms or schools have composters or vermicomposters outside. If not, find a volunteer family that will take the organics home to their chickens or compost bin.

8) Teach reuse: Save items like Ziploc bags, rubber bands or paper clips that were in the trash but can be reused.

9) Weigh your newly separated piles of trash, compost, reuse and recycling.

10) Celebrate your results by making a graph so the students can see the change in landfill trash versus recycling and compost. The decrease in landfill trash will be surprising.

Follow-up activities include having the classroom write a manifesto for changes in behavior to create less waste. Suggestions might include some of the following:

1) Place pictures of recyclables on the recycling bins as a reminder to students.

2) Move a recycling bin near the paper towel dispenser (wet, clean paper towels can be recycled).

3) Start a compost bin, worm bin or a chicken bucket.

4) Start a reuse box as a place to put items that can be reused.

5) Start other recycling streams that don’t go in the recycling bin but can be taken to other recycling facilities, like plastic bags (local supermarket) and juice boxes (a local Terracycle brigade).

Please feel free to contact us with questions or needs. We hope to be your go-to school waste audit resource! And if you’ve conducted a waste audit yourself, do send us a note to let us know how it went.

Easy DIY Snack Boxes

By Finn Clark

Aunt Kelly's Cool Carton Snack Boxes. Photo © Finn Clark

My Aunt Kelly gave me the idea to make snack box containers because she made us one as a gift for Christmas. Since we get local organic milk delivered in cartons, I started saving some so I could try to make my own, using Kelly’s as a template.

Aunt Kelly's Cool Snack Box, Opened Up. Photo © Finn Clark

Here’s how it’s done:

1) You’ll want your box to be square. Each carton is about 3.5 inches wide. Measure 3.5 inches up from the bottom of each corner and put a dot there with a Sharpie. This will be the point where you will cut down to from the top.

2) Then measure another 3.5 inches above that and put another dot there. This is the high point of your arch.

Drawing the high point of your arch. Photo © Finn Clark

3) We used Kelly’s as a template so just traced the arches, but I’ve given you the measurements above, so you can now draw your arch like we did.

Put a dot 3.5 inches up from the bottom. This is the point where you cut down to from the top. Photo © Finn Clark

4) Now that you have an arch drawn for each side of your carton, start cutting them out with scissors. Be sure to cut on the corners all the way down to your 3.5 inch mark (up from the bottom.)

Cutting down the corners from the top of the carton all the way down to the 3.5 inch mark. Photo © Finn Clark

5) Now cut out your arches.

Cutting the arches. Photo © Finn Clark

6) Fold your sides down at the 3.5 inch marks.

Folding the sides down.

7) Sew on a nice large button. Just sew it on like you would normally sew a button. We chose our favorite side to sew the button onto, centered it, and measured about 1.5 inches down from the top.

Sew on a button. Photo © Finn Clark

8) Wrap a rubber band around the button once tightly and use it to cinch down your little snack box.

The right size rubber band adds the finishing touch. Photo © Finn Clark

You’re done! Enjoy your snack box. I use mine to hold apple slices, or home made crackers, nuts, whatever I can find in our pantry for a school snack. And it’s really easy to wash out!

Me and my DIY snack box.

Oh, and you can save the left-over cut carton and use it as a crown.

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!