How to develop a realistic waste reduction program in schools

By Kary Schumpert and Cyndra Dietz


TAKE A LOOK BEHIND MOST SCHOOLS and you’ll see dumpsters full of classroom paper, plastic bags, discarded cafeteria food, milk cartons and paper towels. Day-to-day operations in a typical school require lots of resources, very little of which gets reused, reclaimed or recycled.

Visit one of 31 Green Star Schools, comprising 14,000 students and staff in Boulder County, Colorado, and the story is different. Hallways and classrooms are still bustling, but outside you find dumpsters not only for garbage, but for compost and recycling. More than likely the trash container is less than half full while the compost and recycling containers are brimming. How is that possible?


From Recycling to Zero Waste

Eco-Cycle, one of the oldest and largest non-profit recycling organizations in the U.S., has coordinated recycling services and environmental education programs to the two area public school districts (80 schools) since 1987. In 2005, Eco-Cycle launched the Green Stars Schools program in four pilot elementary schools with the goal of moving these schools to Zero Waste. This award-winning project includes four main components:

1. Increased recycling of commingled containers, paper and cardboard.

2. Composting food waste and non-recyclable paper from all areas of the school (kitchens, cafeterias, classrooms,bathrooms and offices)

3. Special waste-reduction projects

4. Extensive training and environmental education for staff and students

With these steps, schools have been able to reduce their waste by as much as two-thirds. Unlike other programs where only cafeteria or classroom waste is targeted, the Green Star model focuses on waste from all areas of the school. Waste reduction projects and extensive training/education are very important for a program’s success.


What is Zero Waste?

Many of us think of recycling and composting, but what is Zero Waste? Zero Waste is more of a goal, than a literal zero. Here’s a broad and comprehensive definition:

“Zero waste is a philosophy and a design principle for the 21st Century; it is not simply about putting an end to landfilling. Aiming for zero waste is not an end-of-pipe solution. That is why it heralds fundamental change. Aiming for zero waste means designing products and packaging with reuse and recycling in mind. It means ending subsidies for wasting. It means closing the gap between landfill prices and their true costs. It means making manufacturers take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products and packaging. Zero waste efforts, just like recycling efforts before, will change the face of solid waste management in the future. Instead of managing wastes, we will manage resources and strive to eliminate waste.”

—Institute for Local Self Reliance (

While Zero Waste may be your philosophical goal, children can be quite literal. They may feel as if they have failed if there is any trash left over after all their efforts. Eco-Cycle’s program is called Green Star Schools for that very reason. You may also want to pick a name for your project that doesn’t include the literal zero.


Phases to Success

The program has three phases. The first phase, including the following, is completed in the semester prior to the school’s kick-off:

  1. Meet with the principal and staff to ensure adequate support of the program.
  2. Establish a student group (the class of a supportive teacher, student council or eco-club)
  3. Perform a school waste audit to see what types of waste can be diverted.

The second phase involves a high degree of training and education. The entire school community is involved. All-school kick-off assemblies, setting up containers for compost and recycling, classroom and staff trainings and lunchroom monitoring are all done in the second semester of each school’s involvement. We find that it is easier to start in the second semester, instead of in the fall when school and classroom routines are still being established.
The third and final phase ensures that the program is ongoing. To keep student enthusiasm high and school staff supportive, education is crucial. Offering a variety of ongoing benefits is key to keeping schools involved. These benefits include:

  1. Restart assemblies, classroom refreshers and faculty retraining.
  2. Distribution of newsletters to share innovative ideas between schools.
  3. Classroom clean-out events to recycle and reuse excess school supplies at the end of the year.
  4. Waste-free lunch promotions(tips, signs and announcements) to encourage waste- reduction in the lunch room (promoting reusable lunch bags and containers, etc.)
  5. Assistance in coordinating Zero Waste all-school events, such as pancake breakfasts, school carnivals and dances.
  6. Promotion of the schools’ efforts with website links, newspaper ads, signage and banners.
  7. A five-year anniversary celebration that includes award assemblies, lunchroom monitoring, classroom trainings, reuse craft projects and prizes for students.
  • The Green Star model has been successful due to the partnership between Eco-Cycle and the two local school districts. However, many school districts may not have a recycling organization to partner with to implement a comprehensive Zero Waste program. What then?

    When launching any comprehensive Zero Waste program, it is recommended to implement the program in phases. Take stock of what is happening in your school and district and then move in stages. Start with waste reduction. These are projects that can work for schools and communities of any size. If recycling programs exist locally, but aren’t implemented in the schools, explore options to begin recycling. Lastly, look at composting and see what collection services are in your area.

    No matter what project your school is working on, it’s important to include education. Focus solely on operations and the project will fail. Effective education and training ensures that materials will have less contamination and the program will be around for the long-term, not just until the initial excitement dies down.

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    Waste Reduction, the Frontline

    Zero Waste cannot happen without recycling and compost- ing. However, waste reduction efforts can be implemented in any school or community, even when recycling and compost facilities are not available.

    The cafeteria is the site of much school waste. Working extensively with local school districts to phase out disposable paper and polystyrene plates, cups and trays, and the move district-wide to durable, washable alternatives can be a huge undertaking. The Boulder Valley School District has moved to bulk milk machines and washable glasses to avoid the waste from paper milk cartons. Other efforts can be implemented on many levels:

    •  Purchasing practices (school and district-wide) to buy more recycled, reusable and recyclable products.
    •  Waste-free lunch promotions for students and staff who bring lunch to school. Encouraging students to eat their food and simple reminders to “take only one napkin” can make a difference.
    •  Classroom tips (such as using both sides of paper, and having an area for scrap paper for writing assignments and craft/art projects) give teachers and students ownership.
  • Donations (from parents and restaurants) of used cutlery, cups and plates for classroom parties. Parent volunteers can take the classroom kit home after the party to wash and return the next school day.

Getting Started with Recycling

Beginning a new recycling program, or invigorating an old one, can reduce waste by up to one-third. Here are some reccomended first steps:

  1. Contact local waste haulers and municipalities to find out what recycling options exist.
  2. Monitor current waste levels and, after implementation, reduce trash service (fewer collection days and/or smaller dumpsters). Savings in trash service will help fund the recycling.
  1. Establish consistent signage, colors and containers to make recycling recognizable throughout the building.
  2. Include ongoing education of teachers, students, custodians and administration.


From Crumbs to Compost

When schools have been recycling for a long time, composting becomes the next logical step in Zero Waste efforts. Composting can account for up to one-third of the reduction in waste.

In order to achieve this level of diversion, com- postable materials must be hauled to a large-scale compost facility. On-school-site vermicomposting or backyard-style composting to enhance school gardens is a wonderful way to involve and educate students. These methods will not, however, provide for substantial amounts of waste diverted from the landfill.

Usually, large-scale compost facilities are able to accept more materials, including foods such as meat and dairy and non-recyclable paper (tissues, napkins, paper towels). An average school of 400-600 students will produce two to three cubic yards of compost each week. Collecting materials from all areas of the school, including the kitchen, cafeteria, bathrooms (paper towels) and classrooms will provide the most benefit.


Keeping Compost Clean

Careful attention must be paid to keeping contamination out of the compost bin. Glass, metal and plastic are lethal to the decomposer organisms, and are difficult to screen out. Extensive education is required, not only with lists and posters, but also with the tie-in that worms, insects and microbes will be consuming the compost.

There is also a rising concern with the labeling of “compostable” foodservice ware. As community compost collections gain ground, there is an increasing number of one-time use materials like plates, cups and forks being marketed as compostable. However, many have been mislabeled and are not designed to truly biodegrade in a large-scale compost setting. Some of these materials actually contain oil-based plastic, which will never completely biodegrade.

To avoid these products, follow the guidelines and make use of the database offered by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), a nonprofit independent research-based organization. BPI maintains an updated list of products that are certified to be truly compostable. (

In addition, milk cartons and other plastic-coated paper products should never be accepted into any type of compost collection. Recent research has shown that these products produce micro-plastic fragments that contaminate the envi- ronment after the compost is applied to the soil, adding to the growing problem of plastic pollution in multiple ecosystems, with detrimental effects on wildlife.

From large to small, there are several options for schools to take when considering a Zero Waste approach. No matter the obstacles, cost or lack of local infrastructure, there is a way to overcome those and find solutions that make sense based on the school community. Even for schools where recycling and composting may seem too difficult to tackle at the moment, everyone can enjoy the efforts and benefits of focusing on the most important “R” (reduce) in the three “R’s” of reduce, reuse, recycle. The beauty of adding recycling and compost collection to a school is the visible and valuable learning opportunities for students and teachers alike. While so many environmental issues are complex and difficult for stuendts to see their role or solution, there is a direct relation between the participation and action that can take place with reducing waste, recycling and compost- ing. The small, simple steps help students to see how those actions can lead to complex, local solutions to environmental problems. Students and teachers can see themselves in the complexity of the world.



Cyndra Dietz has been the Program Manager of Eco-Cycle’s School Recycling and Environmental Education Program in Boulder, Colorado for 22 years. She founded the Green Star Schools program, a comprehensive Zero Waste system for schools, upon which this article is based, and has won numerous awards for her work.

Kary Schumpert is an environmental educator for Eco-Cycle and has worked in the environmental field for a variety of non-profits for 14 years. She has conducted composing workshops for schools, families and communities and maintained her own worm compost bin during that time. She is a regional editor for Green Teacher.


<> For information on Eco-Cycle’s Green Star Schools program, or contact Cyndra at, 303-444-6634, X122.

<> For information on Eco-Cycle’s research on micro-plastics in compost.

<> For information on the Biodegradable Products Institute list of certified compostable items.