The importance of reducing waste and promoting recycling in schoolsReducing waste and recycling in schools can be a fantastic way of educating children and teenagers about our responsibilities for improving the environment – and there are many ways for everyone from pupils and parents to teachers and kitchen staff to get involved.
Food Waste - If you're wondering what you could do with all that food waste – from lunches, snacks, and more – the most obvious answer is to turn it into something valuable. A good waste management company will recycle commercial food waste, from plate scraps to kitchen off-cuts and transform it into renewable energy. But you could also use some of it to make a more direct impact. A school compost heap made up of peelings, teabags, grass cuttings, shredded paper and more is a fantastic way of educating children and teenagers about decomposition and creates beautiful, free compost to use on the school's grounds. All you need to get started are a couple of compost bins.
Plastics - Many people and organisations are working hard to reduce the use of plastic these days, although it's impossible to cut it out entirely from every single part of a school's operations. From milk cartons to packaging, so much plastic doesn't need to go in the bin. Instead, use a reputable recycling scheme to ensure the value of this precious resource isn't lost, and it can be reborn as new, more environmentally friendly containers and wrappers.
Paper and cardboard – from textbooks to pupils' work and packaging to storage boxes – are also significant sources of school waste, making up at least 25% of everything a school discards. While it's a lot of waste, it can also be used well. Providing mixed recycling options enables schools to recycle and turn this waste back into valuable printer paper, boxes and much more.
There's lots more besides that can be repurposed through active recycling in schools. Amongst other things, glass and metal, electronics and some furniture can all be entirely or partially given a new lease of life. Even general waste that can't be recycled can now be processed into renewable energy that heats homes, offices and schools. Just because it's called waste doesn't mean it needs to be wasted!
How is school waste impacting the environment?
Take a guess at how much waste schools create each academic year. What did you come up with?
According to a study from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), primary schools create around 45kg, while for secondary schools, the average is about 22kg. That's per pupil (Education Business).
According to the latest figures, there are over 24,000 schools serving more than 9,000,000 pupils in the UK (Gov). That means the total amount of waste produced by schools each year is, well, frightening. Imagine if you could see it all piled up in one place!
More than 70% of this school waste is food, paper and card, and that's good news because over 80% is entirely recyclable. But the bad news is that only 20% of it ever gets recycled. That's a massive opportunity for more recycling in schools to help improve the environment.
In fact, schools produce an eye-watering 80,000 tonnes of food waste each academic year – and that's not without cost. Estimates suggest that the education sector forks out £250 million a year on the bill for this waste alone (Buzz Education). That equals almost 9,000 new teachers, or enough to look after 49,000 pupils, which is a great reason to reduce school waste.
Naturally enough, if you want to make a dent in your share of that £250 million per year that schools spend on food waste, the best route is to reduce waste at source. Most school kitchens are already delivering near-miracles within the tightest of budgets. However, evidence suggests that by collecting data on the most and least popular food options, kitchens can save cash and cut waste by ruling out the foods pupils tend to avoid (Civica). Equally, by publishing menus in advance and enabling pre-ordering, kitchen staff can prepare more of what's needed and less of what's not. On top of this, help cut plastic use by encouraging pupils to refill water bottles from a fountain and saying no to plastic plates and cutlery.
Involving young people in improving the environment alongside your own sustainability efforts can make a big difference to schools and society. For example, some of a school's waste, particularly plastic packaging, is brought into the building by the pupils themselves through packed lunches. Why not earmark a day to challenge the whole school – teaching and kitchen staff included – to enjoy a waste-free lunch day together and see what difference it makes to your waste volumes? It's a perfect learning opportunity for young people that ties into many aspects of the existing curriculum.
Thanks to digital technology, there are many ways to avoid paper waste today. Encourage staff to think twice before printing and photocopying – is it really essential, and will the output get plenty of use before it's discarded? For security and safety, electronic storing of files is sensible nowadays anyway, and many parents prefer to receive communications by email or WhatsApp than through a letter in an envelope.
If there's no alternative, ask the IT team to ensure printers and copiers are set to double-sided printing by default. And keep non-confidential one-sided printouts for scrap in the office, primary school colouring fun or secondary school art projects.
Commitment to composting and more
At Bristol Grammar School, children and young people aged 4 to 18 are scraping their lunchtime leftovers into dedicated food waste wheelie bins. The meal scraps are collected three times a week and turned into valuable renewable energy. The school has also switched almost all its lighting to energy-efficient LEDs.
Hands-on green activities
Schools across Wiltshire are getting help from Wiltshire Wildlife Trust to reduce waste through hands-on activities that encourage reuse, recycling and composting. The partnership engages children and teenagers in fun, resourceful ideas, from making their own paper to constructing bird feeders from recycled materials.
Developing a sustainability strategy
Not sure what to do with your old IT equipment? Some companies can collect it for free, including power cables and adapters, from all educational establishments. Some of those organisations will securely destroy any data (although we recommend you do this before donating), test, clean and refurbish the kit to be re-sold for personal or business use.
And a school in Bristol has set up several initiatives to make a difference in the climate crisis. The students established an Eco Club and Recycling Team. They completed a climate action survey, leading to tree planting, more recycling bins, a new social media page, and regular discussion on sustainability topics with the school's senior leadership team.
The importance of educating pupils on recycling in (and out) of school
Children and young people are society's future parents, teachers, business owners and community leaders, so we must do as much as we can to encourage them to preserve nature and the climate by reducing, reusing and recycling waste. From this simple principle, we create positive habits, setting kids up to think about reducing their carbon footprint and making sustainable decisions second nature.
Every pupil, teacher and parent can start making small changes at home and school right now – small changes that, when combined, multiply their impact, and inspire more significant and better changes for the good of our planet. Together, we can ensure our youth are ready for the challenges ahead!
For ideas on introducing positive waste behaviours into the classroom through fun activities, take a look here.
The benefits of reducing waste and recycling for schools
Reducing school waste and adopting recycling can help improve the environment, free up the budget for other essentials, and boost a school's reputation. At the same time, it'll help to inform and educate children and young people about waste so they can be the global guardians of our future world.
Beyond the savings from reducing food waste, taking a "How can we avoid waste?" approach more generally can reap financial rewards and other benefits. More and more parents and their children are doing their bit for the planet. Put yourself at the forefront of this movement – send less waste to landfill, engage pupils in positive waste management, consider how to make the best use of resources that might otherwise be thrown away, and make incremental and sustainable changes to how the school operates. This will make your school a more attractive and responsible neighbour too. It's a real win-win for everyone.