School & District Management

The ‘Zero-Waste Classroom': Teachers Share Tips for Going Green

By Madeline Will — November 14, 2019 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

There’s a lot of waste that comes out of a classroom daily—dried-up markers, used tissues, filled-out worksheets, half-eaten snacks ... the list goes on.

A lot of that trash can feel inevitable. But over the past few years, there’s been a small but passionate movement of teachers who are working toward a “zero-waste classroom.”

“Zero waste is not really a descriptor of the amount of waste that anyone is producing—no one is actually zero waste,” said Heidi Rose, a 1st grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Denver who runs a blog about her classroom-sustainability efforts. “It’s a great goal word. ... I’ve been able to lessen the amount going straight to the landfill.”

That means instead of cleaning her classroom with antibacterial wipes, she uses rags and a spray bottle. Instead of single-use cups and plates for class parties, she bought a classroom set of plastic, reusable dishes from Ikea. And—in what might be the most extreme example—Rose no longer buys tissues for her students. Instead, she bought flannel sheets from Goodwill and cut them up into little squares. Each of those squares are used once by students, and then thrown into a laundry bin. Rose washes them, or asks parent volunteers to wash them, about once a month.

These initiatives, she said, have caused her young students to think more carefully about what they use and throw away. “It’s less about what’s actually leaving my classroom in the trash can and more about, are the kids in my classroom shifting their relationship to what they’re consuming?” she said.

For instance, her class used to go through hundreds of pencils a year. Rose now explains the lifespan of a pencil to her students—that the pencil comes from a tree, which was chopped down—and asks her class to take ownership of their pencils. She writes their names on every pencil, and students now only go through three or four pencils over the course of an entire school year.

View this post on Instagram Commonly trashed item alert: perfectly USABLE pencils that have been gnawed to a pulp, snapped in two, or lost in the abyss. Many teachers go through H U N D R E D S of pencils a year! I know, I used to be one of them! 🙋🏼♀️ . 🌳Besides endless sharpening being a huge waste of your precious time and energy, it's also a huge waste of trees! I switched to each kid having ONE pencil with their number on it long ago, but was still having trouble with kids losing and breaking them and needing a replacement. Even incentivizing them with a prize for the longest kept pencil didn't work! . ✅The solution is this MAGIC box! Just a plain ole tissue box rescued from the recycling and painted. Now, instead of storing their pencils in the cubbies or desks, they return the pencil to its spot after EACH SUBJECT! I can quickly see who needs to do a pencil check without digging around forever. We get a marble in our jar each day we have all the pencils in the box (in good shape!) I bet we'll use fewer than 70 pencils this way! . . ✏️There are approximately 1 million resources for #TheGreatPencilChallenge out there if you want to give it a quick search and incorporate tickets and posters and such. I created a simple little poster to stick in a frame (instead of laminating). Kids who don't lose their pencil all week get to write their name on it. Do you have any favorite ways to keep pencils organized? Let me know! ⬇️⬇️⬇️ A post shared by Ms. Heidi (@zerowasteclassroom) on Jan 9, 2018 at 5:19pm PST

Across the country, many people have increasingly been working to reduce waste and prevent further climate change. There are sustainability initiatives at many school districts—the New York City district, for instance, has started meatless Mondays this school year, and some schools have installed solar panels or started composting programs.

But advocates for “zero-waste classrooms” say teachers can make small changes in their practice that make a huge impact. For example, markers and crayons can be recycled. Teachers can ask students to bring in paper folders, rather than plastic folders that are not always recyclable.

“The biggest thing we can all do—and it’s free and available to any teacher—is refuse what you don’t need,” said Kate Lamb, a speech-language pathologist at Gleason Lake Elementary School in Plymouth, Minn. “See if another teacher has it available.”

After all, she said, the five “Rs” of zero waste are, in order: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot (or compost).

Lamb has been working to make her classroom “zero waste” since January 2018. She and her students are able to reuse, recycle, or compost practically everything—she has rechargable batteries, highlighter pencils, and refillable markers.

In fact, her classroom trash is able to fit into a tiny spice jar that holds about three tablespoons, Lamb said. So far, it mostly contains some plastic tape that wasn’t compostable. She hasn’t had to empty it since last spring—and there’s still “room for more.”

Of course, one of the largest sources of waste in a classroom is paper.

“There’s really no way around needing paper, and a fair amount, when teaching,” said Carlyn Grebleski, an English-as-a-second-language teacher in Galway, Ireland, in an email. “I’ve never worked in a classroom with enough resources for all students to handle digital materials without going to a computer lab, and I don’t think most of us have those resources in our classroom.”

But there are some ways to minimize the volume of paper used, teachers said. Grebleski, who has a blog called Less Waste World, prints double-sided, uses half-sheets of paper when possible, and prints on smaller margins. She also uses reusable tools, like white boards.

Getting Students Involved

In Missoula, Mont., Kim Johnson, a 5th grade teacher at Franklin Elementary School, has found a way to cut down on a different source of paper waste. Instead of using paper towels or napkins, she has cloth towels and napkins for students to use after washing their hands or eating breakfast. She also has a classroom set of real silverware, to avoid the plastic utensils food services provide for breakfast.

And students are tasked with washing the silverware and bringing the towels and napkins to the washing machine on school grounds every week. Those chores help reinforce what they learn in their unit on “sharing the planet,” she said.

“I’m really big on empowering the kids,” Johnson said. “You’re not responsible for the climate warming going on, or the amount of emissions [produced]. However, it’s most definitely going to be your problem.”

When she started her zero-waste classroom three years ago, Missoula Compost Collection donated a free year of composting. After that year expired, Johnson began paying $18 a month to continue composting: “I feel like it’s that important for the kids to learn that process,” she said.

In a blog post, Rose offered some tips for teachers who want to start composting but don’t have a school program and don’t want to shell out the money themselves. They could ask parents if anyone has a home compost and would be willing to take home a weekly bucket. They could start composting in the school garden. Or they could search for a local farm or community garden that might take the compost.

View this post on Instagram Food waste fast facts: 🍅In the U.S. ONE-THIRD of all food grown/produced is wasted. 🥬Wasted food is the SINGLE BIGGEST occupant in landfills. 🍑Food in landfills doesn't decompose- it just rots and emits methane gas, a greenhouse gas 3-10 times MORE POTENT than CO2. 🍌 There's a lot going on here- from food thrown away before it even reaches the grocery store to food thrown out for being a slightly different shape, to the food consumers are tossing after buying. Fighting food waste is an multi-fronted battle, but one simple way to start is by composting! 🥦 I'm lucky that my school has city composting, so I just keep a bucket in my classroom and empty it each day in the lunchroom. But there are tons of options for composting even if your city doesn't! 🍎Does your school have a garden? You could set up a big outdoor tumbler in the garden area and have free fertilizer after a while! 🍊Do any parents at your school compost? They may be willing to take yours home! 🍋Are you super brave and want to try vermi-composting as a class project? Worm bin composting is an amazing way for kids to get hands on with composting. Last year I had a kiddo who said her classroom in TX had a worm compost in class! 👋 Who else has ideas for composting at school? 🌱 {ID: a small bucket labeled "compost", a book titled "Compost Stew" and an orange and banana peel and apple are sitting on a table.} A post shared by Ms. Heidi (@zerowasteclassroom) on Apr 14, 2019 at 12:55pm PDT

At the beginning of every year, Johnson has her students “dig through trash bags from around the school.” It’s an eye-opening, albeit gross, look at how many things are thrown away, she said.

“They understand if you’re not intentional about zero waste, then it doesn’t happen,” she said.

That’s also a good practice for teachers who want to get started but don’t know where to start, Rose said. She recommends teachers save their trash (except for food waste) for a week and then conduct an audit to see what is thrown away.

“For every teacher, it might be different—there might be a lot of glue sticks or dried-out markers or paper, if you don’t have recycling,” she said. “As soon as you can see what are the big items we can change our relationship to, you can brainstorm some alternatives or look online for some ideas on how to cut back on that. ... As you’re starting, remember that the main goal is not to make zero trash but to change the way we’re thinking about how we’re consuming.”

Image of Heidi Rose’s zero waste classroom, courtesy of Heidi Rose

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.