Back-to-School: 5 Tips to Achieve a Zero-Waste School Year

It is that time of the year again when students return to school to begin a new academic year. This could be a great time to establish new initiatives in schools, and introduce your school community (staffs, students and parents) to new routines. If you are in a position of authority in a school, have you thought of introducing waste reduction initiatives in your school? If you are a parent, you also have a say in your child’s school! Advocate for waste reduction initiatives in your child’s school. What is we aimed for a zero-waste school year? (It is important to understand that “zero-waste” is more of a goal to be aiming for, than a literal zero). This article is intended to equip school community members (staff, students and parents) to propose, advocate, and implement a zero-waste movement in schools.

Promoting waste reduction initiatives from school provides numerous benefits. One of the key benefits is that it gives the chance to students to be exposed to and involved in waste management from an early age, and by so doing increases the probability that they will practice this throughout their lives. Implementing proper waste management in schools involves prioritizing reducing, reusing, and recycling waste (3Rs) over disposal, and this would result in environmental benefits such as clean water bodies, biodiversity protection, climate change mitigation, water conservation, etc. Socio-economic benefits of proper waste management would include promoting innovation in the school community and beyond, saving money, job creation, community engagement, and many more.

5 Tips for a Zero-Waste School Year

Now that you know the value of promoting waste reduction in school environments, let’s explore 5 ways you can go about achieving this:

  1. Reduce waste in the school cafeteria. Tips to achieve this include:
    • Promoting litterless lunches among students and staff. For students bringing lunch from home, encourage them to make use of reusable lunch boxes and thermos, rather than single use containers or bags. If the school provides lunch to students, then it is important to review purchasing practices and give preference to practices such as purchasing in bulk, purchasing items with containers that can be reused or recycled, etc.
    • Opting for reusable dishes and cutlery in cafeteria
    • Implementing a composting project in the school for food waste and soiled paper
  2. Reduce paper waste. Tips for achieving this include:
    • Prioritizing paperless means of communication such as emails, and SMSs
    • Proof-reading documents carefully before printing in order to avoid paper waste from reprinting
    • Photocopying/printing when absolutely necessary only, and using two-sided photocopying as much as possible. Promoting the use of bulletin boards; or even providing siblings with a single notice for parents, if possible, rather than taking home several copies of the same notice could be helpful in achieving this.
    • Promoting the use of scrap paper among staff and students by establishing a “one-side still blank” bin by the printing machine
  3. Run special waste reduction projects/events in school. Examples of projects include: making recycled paper; making art using waste, designing posters to address a waste reduction action such as how to reuse a common item, etc. Ideas for zero-waste events in schools include toy swap day, flea market day, classroom clean out events at the end of the year to recycle or reuse excess school supplies, contests for the class creating the least waste, etc. Such projects and events are fun and could contribute in keeping the students and staff actively involved in achieving zero waste.
  4. Involve the entire school community including parents in waste reduction initiatives. One way of doing this could be by encouraging students, staffs and parents to donate unwanted articles that can be reused in school such as office equipment, furniture, computers, tableware, or even articles that can be used for crafts such as old clothes, containers, etc. This would prevent the disposal of these materials in the landfill, while meeting the need of the school.
  5. Set up a waste recycling program in school. If this does not exist in your school yet, the first step in implementing this will be to contact your municipality to enquire on existing recycling options in order to establish a school recycling program that aligns with your municipality. To enhance the success of the recycling program, it is important to maintain consistency throughout the school in terms of signage, colors and containers to make them easily recognizable.

Enhancing the Successful Implementation of Zero-Waste Initiatives in Schools

Continuously providing education on waste reduction to staff and students throughout the year is crucial for promote a zero-waste school year. This has been proven through experience to be critical in maintaining enthusiasm and support from students and teachers. Doing this could be as simple as sharing information on tips and benefits of zero waste, sharing innovative ideas from other schools, as well as progressively reporting on the impact/outcome of the school’s efforts in order to encourage students and staffs. Other educational activities which could be explored include discussing the life cycle of a common product (from mining raw materials to disposal) within the curriculum, organising tours to waste management facilities, recycling plants, composting facilities, etc.

To conclude, in addition to carrying out educational activities throughout the year, the successful implementation of waste reduction initiatives in schools could also be enhanced by establishing zero-waste champions among students who will take ownership of initiatives and promote them among their peers (this could be in the form of an environmental club; or students in the class of a teacher who supports zero-waste initiatives; or a student council)


1. Schumpert, Kary and Dietz, Cyndra . Zero Waste for Schools. [Online] 15 December 2015.

Leslie Fotso
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