At School

Waste Reduction Resources
For Schools and Institutions
The Basics - Reducing Waste at Preschools to Colleges

Working with an institution is a big job with a big payoff – stopping tons of food waste from going to the landfill each week.

Set yourself up for success with The Institute for Local Self Reliance and this guide for working with schools.

Explore the resources available through Smarter Lunchrooms Pioneers.




Step 1: Speak with the department that oversees waste management.
Here are some important questions to help you get started:
  • Are there any school groups that are already working on waste reduction?
  • Is Recycling or Composting happening on campus?
  • What are the current waste management policies regarding recycling?
  • What are the current waste management policies regarding composting?
  • Are there any purchasing policies that are relevant to waste management?
  • Does the current waste hauling service contract include recycling/composting?
  • Would there be any financial gains to recycling or composting?
If your school does not have the ideal waste management system in place yet, many of these questions will be answered with responses such as, “It didn’t work,” or “we’ve never been able to.” For responses like these it’s important to ask why. The past reasons may no longer be the case.  
Step 2: Follow the breadcrumbs. Your interview with management will give you a good idea on who to speak with next.
Essential groups you will want to speak with:
  • Custodians – They are the at the front line of keeping the campus clean and safe from health hazards. Speak with as many as you can and listen carefully to what they have to say. They will be able to tell you about the campus’ waste behaviors better than any other group. When working to find solutions always keep them in mind. If your solutions are efficient and effective they will naturally keep the custodians work load the same or lessen it.
  • Kitchen/Food Manager – Because food is generally one of the larger contributors to campus waste, it will be beneficial to speak with the kitchen staff to learn about current practices and any policies they have to comply with.
  • Users – This includes students, staff, faculty and visitors. Ask them how user friendly the current system is and what types of improvements they’d like to see. Pitch your ideas to them and get their feedback.
  • Organization or Committee – Is there a student club or sustainability committee that already focuses on waste reduction? If so, you’ll want to join forces with them. If not, seriously consider starting one.  Consult with motivated staff/faculty/students/parents. There is no faster way to bring an initiative to a screeching halt than for a solo activist to move on / graduate.  
Step 3: Do a waste audit. Yes, there maybe a particular item that stoked your curiosity in the first place, such as not being able to recycle a bottle on campus, but after doing a waste audit you may find there is a larger underlying reason that needs to be tackled first.
Here are a few waste audit options:

Define the Challenge

Now that you have a better picture of the current managing practices and what the waste stream and user behaviors are, what needs to be improved the most? Seek out the main challenge in this order:
  • Reduce – Is your main challenge a need to reduce something? Speak with the purchasing department to find out if there are ways to reduce the amount of unsustainable products ordered. For example, maybe eliminate vending machine products that come wrapped in mylar, which is very hard to recycle.
  • Reuse – Is your main challenge a need to better accommodate reusable items? Looking at your waste stream, are there any throw-away items that could be reduced or eliminated from campus by providing reusable alternatives. For example, would introducing water bottle refill stations be feasible?
  • Recycle – After making sure your main issue isn’t a reduce or reuse one, is your main challenge a need to increase or improve recycling/composting methods?    
It’s important to define your main challenge first. This allows for all the other challenges to be eliminated or easier to manage.
Pro Tip: In the process you may realize your “main challenge” wasn’t really the main challenge. You may want to pivot and tackle the new found challenge first or just come back to it later. If you choose the latter, be sure to come back to it.


Step 1: Within a group setting, work to come up with as many possible solutions to this main challenge. The more solutions the better. If you’re familiar with Design Thinking then you’ll have a better grasp on the wide array of solutions that are beneficial to this process. If not, consider no idea too crazy to share. It might not be a winning idea but it might spark the idea that eventually does generate the best solution. (Design Thinking, a creative and effective way for innovative problem solving.)


Pro Tip: One person speaks at a time and there is a note taker who places the solution ideas on a board for everyone to see.


Step 2: After the brainstorming session, have each person silently select their top ideas. Share them with the group when everyone is done. This will generate a short list of solutions to create a working prototype with.


Step 3: Take this prototype to the end user(s) and test it. Don’t forget end users also include management and custodians. Get feedback and adapt the prototype accordingly. Repeat this until the group feels confident with the prototype.


Step 4: Take the prototype and implement it. How widely it is implemented at first will vary depending on factors such as resources, policies and the type of solution in general.



Step 1:  Agree on a reasonable trial period for the prototype take effect and operate.   


Step 2:  After the trial period is over, evaluate the results and effectiveness by getting feedback from essential personnel.  What is working and what needs tweeking?  Apply what you have observed and learned to sustain or improve your system.


Pro Tip: Be flexible and ready to adapt. In this quickly changing world, today’s solutions may no longer be effective for tomorrow’s challenges.



For Example
PAPER: Ideas to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
1. What can be done electronically instead?
2.  Make only the number of copies you need.  Print on demand only.
3. Double side all printing
4. Reuse single sided printed paper – for notes, classroom art projects, notices.  Just stoke out the “back” page. Have desktop baskets for semi-used paper for reuse
5.  Art projects – a limited use, but paper can be repulsed to make new paper, paper mâché, collages, etc.
6.  Shredded paper can be used to make compost.  Does your school have a garden with composting?
7. Contact the school’s waste hauler and see if they will pick up waste paper (and cardboard/corrugated boxes). If yes, set up some collection bins around the school.
8.  Post in your neighborhood that you have waste paper in case someone needs it (can be used for packaging, compost, art projects).  Maybe someone is looking for white paper and you can segregate that or maybe they want colored paper.  Again, this might be limited volume.
You can also check on Share Waste.
9. Business Services will still take paper for recycling.
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