High School Students with Recycling Poster
For more information on how to build an exceptional recycling program for your elementary or secondary school, click here.

We’ve been building exceptional public & private school recycling & waste management programs for over 35 years. Here’s 9 key secrets we’ve unearthed that’ll build the zero waste program you’ve always wanted for your school and save you money in the process.

Let’s start with the facts.

Elementary & Secondary Schools are massive producers of waste, most of which is easily recycled with the correct program in place. By running a school recycling program, you can help ensure that the amount of trash that ends up in landfills is reduced, and that recyclable items are turned into new products:

  • The average secondary school produces 22kg of waste per student each academic year. The figure for primary schools is even higher at 45kg per student.
  • At least 40 percent of the typical school waste stream is paper (the largest single component of all school waste).
  • Glass and plastic beverage containers account for about 15 percent of the school waste stream. Recycling just one glass bottle saves enough energy to power a 100-watt electric light bulb for four hours.
  • According to Regional Recycling, your school district could see as much as $70,000 added to its operating budget from a beverage container recycling program.
  • In 2018-19, schools in the U.S. recycled approximately 11.2 million beverage containers and raised more than $1.1 million through the Get Matched! School Recycling Program.

In the era of the Green Economy, it’s essential for every school to have an effective recycling program in place that sets the community standard. An effective program focuses on reducing waste, reusing useful materials and recycling them. Ineffective school programs tend to generate a lot of waste, require regular maintenance and expensive waste disposal. Bearing these things in mind, let’s take a look at 9 key ways to enhance the effectiveness of your elementary & secondary school recycling & waste management program.

  1. Pre-step! Do some background research.

    Check to see if there were any past Recycling efforts at the school. Find out what worked and identify any obstacles that may have kept the program from running smoothly in the past. Make sure the program is in compliance with any school policies regarding Waste and Recycling.

    Familiarize yourself with Waste and Recycling laws in your area to make sure your future program is within legal boundaries. Look into what kinds of Waste is being produced by the school and check to see what Waste Streams are collected by local Waste management companies. Check the frequency of pickup and the cost of diverting Waste.

    Additionally, check for any local, state/province, or country-wide grants that might be available and often assist in alleviating the costs of implementing a Sustainability program. Once you’ve gone through this research process, you’ll be ready to get started!

  2. Always begin with a preliminary waste audit to categorize and quantify your school waste

    Step one of building a successful waste management program for your school begins with identifying and categorizing the types and quantity of waste produced by every segment of your facility grounds. Use a map of your grounds to identify key areas (i.e parking lots, recreational facilities, cafeterias, classrooms, hallways, schoolyards etc.) and begin to identify what types of waste is being generated in each area.

    Get an idea of the current waste generated at your school. Review the school’s waste record for the past 12 months to determine:

    • How much waste was produced?
    • How often the waste is collected?
    • What happens to the waste after it leaves the school?
    • What has been done so far to reduce, reuse and recycle waste?
  3. Build a Green Team

    How much time does your janitorial staff and teachers have to spare for sustainability initiatives?

    If the answer is less than you would like, a green team can be the most valuable ally in your quest for building an effective recycling program.

    Many schools simply lack that “passionate advocate” to get recycling started in the school. Recycling success depends on a group of dedicated individuals to plan, develop, and implement the program. A school recycling advocate can be a teacher, student, administrator, or parent. Passion for recycling can spread quickly resulting in recycling becoming an efficient and normal part of the school routine; however, the spark to get the school to begin recycling is essential.

    A Green Team can be a small group of employees or community volunteers whose combined goal is to educate, empower and inspire fellow staff and students to establish and promote environmentally sustainable practices within their organization. Every new initiative needs a full launch campaign and a group of influencers that will help build the momentum of your program. Without a green team, it will be very difficult to get your new waste management program off the ground.

    To setup your green champions for long term success, make sure this group has formal oversight, tools for measurement and verification, and a clear mission.

  4. Communicating your program to your students and staff is essential

    Make sure students know and have been taught about your recycling initiatives. This is the fun part! There are so many great resources, books, and tools to get students excited, educated, and aware of why recycling and sustainability is crucial to the sustainability of our plant.

    A partner of ours, Ontario Ecoschools, is a really great resource to reference in regards to building recycling engagement with students. Their mission is to nurture environmental leaders, reduce the ecological impact of schools, and build environmentally responsible school communities. Ontario Ecoschools helps:

    • Certify K-12 schools in environmental learning and action
    • Create a vibrant network of schools, school boards, and community partners
    • Build strong EcoTeams with training sessions and tools
    • Embed ecological literacy into the curriculum and daily practices

    While they’re focus is obviously geared towards schools in Ontario, Canada, we would suggest learning more about their modern program, as they’re taking a new, progressive approach to recycling in schools!

    For continued education, create easy-to-understand signs for your recycling & waste stations. Including pictures on signs of what items belong in each bin (or even attaching the actual items to signs) is a great way to clarify what’s recyclable, compostable, or destined for landfill in your facility. PSAs or other in-class announcements about recycling, posters, contests, and blurbs in programs can all help involve students and make sure they’re disposing of materials correctly. Reach out to students during recess and other events with special recycling collection (volunteers can help here). Consider including education about your initiative on your website and in social media so that parents can get involved as well!

  5. Modify your operational habits

    The daily operation of your school provides you with an excellent testing ground for some of the waste management techniques.

    Reducing the amount of waste begins with modifying little things. Here’s some examples to get your creative juices flowing:

    • Use biodegradable, compostable food containers for serving in the cafeteria. The plastic bowls, plates and utensils that are used contain less plastic by volume, which also reduces waste.
    • Encourage students to bring their lunch from home in reusable containers
    • Instead of selling bottled water, install water fountains throughout your school and find a local partner to promote reusable cups, mugs, etc.
    • Use high-traffic areas to promote your recycling goals by adding large, attractive recycling stations with signage to promote your messaging
    • Avoid paper products other than toilet paper in the bathrooms.
    • Keep a scrap paper box in every classroom
    • Hold recycling contests between classrooms or grades to see who can collect the most recyclable materials in a month
    • Keep a scrap paper box in every classroom
    • Post assignments and documents online rather than printing them out
  6. Start a beverage container recycling program

    Many facilities across many industries have specific items that play a significant role in their recycling program. For schools, those items are paper, cans & bottles. Bottles are the perfect focal item for a school due to their value to local MRF facilities and bottle depots. Jump on Google and start researching available organizations to partner with that will pay pick up your recycled cans & bottles! As previously mentioned, your school district could see as much as $70,000 (!!) added to its operating budget from a beverage container recycling program.

  7. Tackle single-use plastics and organics

    Many schools are implementing single-use plastics bans at their schools, which is a wonderful step to reducing the amount of plastics entering school grounds. As an example, a Secondary School is hoping to become one of the first in Ireland to go plastic-free, as its students look to contribute to a more sustainable future. Having already won a Unesco Young Environmental Award, Ursuline Secondary School in Blackrock is looking to further strengthen its green credentials by phasing out single-use plastics on its grounds. The first step is to remove all single-use plastic water bottles, and to this end all students have been issued with reusable stainless steel flasks which the school estimates the move will reduce the use of some 500 plastic water bottles a month!

    Composting isn’t available in every community, but work with your haulers (or seek additional help) to get organic discards collected for composting, including landscaping and food waste. Another option is to purchase compostable food serviceware. Buying biobased, compostable serviceware (made from plant-based plastics, ideally waste-based, and certified compostable by ASTM) means that your food service items can be composted instead of trashed, if composting is available in your school, and helps move the serviceware market away from reliance on non-renewable materials like fossil fuel-derived plastic.

  8. Re-evaluate Disposal Habits

    Not long ago, waste removal was mostly built around collecting co-mingled materials and sending the waste to landfills, where it was incinerated or compacted by waste disposal companies. These days, however, your green team and janitorial staff can take an active role in managing part of the process.

    Food waste is one of the largest waste streams on school grounds and fortunately there’s a new crop of haulers that focus solely on organics/compost collection that will gladly collect your food waste, often at reduced costs. And if that’s not an option, you can always invest in food composters to reduce the binned waste generated by food leftovers during lunch periods.

  9. Choose the right recycling stations and place them appropriately

    There’s a hodgepodge of factors you need to consider when purchasing containers to suit each space around your school–too many to cover in this blog! However, as a start, if you want your school recycling & waste program to be successful, it’s imperative that you choose containers that keep all of the collection streams together, regardless of their location across your school grounds.

    For example, if there isn’t a recycling or compost stream directly next to the trash stream, fans just end up tossing all their waste in the most convenient bin—the closest one. This leads to enormous amounts of contamination, which can derail your sustainability goals due to your recycling and compost often ending up in the landfill rather than being properly sorted at your community’s Material Recovery Facilities (MRF).

    Quickly, some other things to consider when choose the right recycling & waste station for your school are:

    • Placement
    • Climate
    • Capacity – One size does not fit all, what works in a classroom won’t necessarily work in hallways or cafeterias.
    • Restrictive Openings
    • Signage & Label Customization Capabilities – For younger students, bold and colorful bins are a fantastic way to get them exciting about Recycling.
    • Stations not Containers – Trash cans should never feel lonely, a Recycling bin makes a great companion

    Make sure you’ve located well-marked, easy to use recycling containers throughout your school – and make sure every time there’s a waste bin, there’s a recycling bin next to it. Some schools have taken this strategy even farther by creating zero waste stations with fewer waste receptacles, instead offering more containers for recycling (and compost) collection. Place bins wherever you think students and staff are likely to need them – near cafeterias, near entrances & exits, etc. – and, optimally, place stations so that at least one is always in view (e.g., every 25 feet).

Start your public or private school waste management program off on the right foot by taking advantage of these 9 industry secrets! Once you’ve launched your school waste management program, you’ll start to see many more areas for improvement. These minor or major improvements will continue to increase your diversion rate and positive impact on the environment, reduce your costs and ultimately enhance the sense of togetherness with your community.

Need help getting started? Contact us to chat with our School Waste Management Specialists for more direction on where to begin your journey to waste management greatness.

For more information on how to build an exceptional recycling program for your elementary or secondary school, click here.