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Starting Young: 4 Tips For Reducing Waste In Schools

From elementary schools to universities, schools produce significant waste. In part, this is simply the result of the educational process – paper scraps, art supplies, mistakes and do-overs – but in some cases, it's also the result of bad habits. In order to reduce the amount of waste produced by our schools, we need to emphasize sustainability from a young age. This can be accomplished through student leadership and with the implementation of a few simple programs.

Start In The Lunchbox

When students bring lunch from home, the food is often healthier and more likely to get eaten, as it's packed to their preferences. Unfortunately, however, lunches sent from home often contain a lot of waste. This includes plastic bags for sandwiches and snacks, juice boxes, and other disposable containers like chip bags. In order to reduce lunchroom waste, parents should be encouraged to pack reusable containers in their children's lunches.

Parents may be hesitant to pack reusable containers because they fear children will throw them away or lose them. To further encourage this practice, schools might suggest that parents place dishwasher-safe name labels on their children's belongings.

If schools institute an active lost and found, regularly making sure that misplaced containers are returned to students, this policy can work very well. Labeling can also reduce the likelihood of food sharing or contamination among young children where the allergy risk is higher, as everything is clearly marked.

Some students will, of course, continue to eat school-provided lunches, especially in low-income schools. For these meals, schools should provide reusable trays and utensils. These can be washed and sterilized along with cooking and serving vessels, eliminating non-biodegradable's styrofoam trays and plastic utensils that are commonly used in cafeterias.

Mind That Milk Carton

Until recently, it was nearly impossible to recycle milk cartons and other similar containers in most areas of the United States. Now, however, 60 percent of US households have access to carton recycling and that number continues to grow.

It's important that schools take advantage of these same programs to reduce the number of milk cartons piling up in the trash. Milk continues to be an integral and nutritious part of most school lunch programs, but that doesn't mean we should tolerate unnecessary waste.

Of course, regardless of whether or not students drink milk with lunch, all students should come to school with a reusable, labeled water bottle. It helps students remain hydrated throughout the day and helps younger children form a valuable habit.

Not raised carrying water bottles, many adults today are still adjusting to keeping one in their bags and many regularly resort to purchasing plastic bottles that end up in the landfill. We can make reusable bottles the new norm for children in our schools.

Encourage Peer Leadership

Kickstarting a school recycling program takes great leadership. It may come from a principal, a classroom teacher, or even a determined custodian. But more important than adult leadership in any school recycling program is encouraging students to lead the way.

Peer leadership can start small. In one Colorado school, two students assist the custodian with the recycling program. They help younger students sort materials and learn the principles of sustainability.

In more established recycling programs, students learn about sustainability and lead the recycling program throughout their time at the school. Science teachers may discuss the concept of different waste streams, math teachers might teach lessons using garbage and recycling proportions or percentages, and students may read books about sustainability, even at the kindergarten level.

Join In Community Composting

Finally, most determined schools may seek to institute composting programs in the cafeteria. This can be challenging if the community does not already have a composting system, but schools can also be the impetus for developing a larger program. If enough local schools undertake such programs, it can encourage the wider community to participate in the practice at home.

Currently, for example, Franklin County in Massachusetts boasts 15 school composting programs.

Though students were uncertain about the process at first, it's rapidly spreading across campuses and into different parts of the school building, including Greenfield High School's woodshop, where they now save sawdust for the compost bin. The students at Franklin County's schools will take this important, sustainability lesson home to their families, offering an opportunity for them to lead at home.

Done correctly, sustainability doesn't have to be a chore. Rather, it can become an unconscious habit and one that helps young people invest in their communities.

When we teach our children and youth to care for their corner of the earth, they carry that lesson with them for the rest of their lives.