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Green school lunches (Part 2) - Moving towards zero-waste with recycling

Updated on July 19, 2012

Note: All text and photos are property of the author and cannot be reused without permission.

Our school bulletin board shows items we recycle.
Our school bulletin board shows items we recycle. | Source

Studies estimate that half of all school trash is generated during lunchtime, so efforts made to divert this trash from the landfill will have a definite impact. Once you’ve reduced your lunchtime waste as much as possible (see link to Part 1 below), the next step is to ramp up your recycling plan.

Why should your school cafeteria recycle?

  • Over time, plastics placed in a landfill can leach chemicals into the soil and water.
  • Recycling lessens our reliance on petroleum and other virgin resources.
  • It takes much less energy and water to produce a can or bottle from recycled materials than it does from virgin materials.
  • You might be able to receive money for some of your recyclables.
  • Teaching kids to recycle at school can lead to recycling at home and set life-long earth-friendly habits in place.

Step One - Collect information from your principal, custodians, cafeteria workers, school parents, PTA, and district administration

  • What items are in your school cafeteria’s trash? Can any of them be recycled? Which ones? Is this a significant portion of the cafeteria trash?
  • Does your school’s trash pickup service also pick up recycling? If not, can it be arranged?
  • Are there other companies that can offer this service for free or for a charge?
  • What items do these services collect?
  • If no services are available, is there a local recycling center where volunteers might transport items?
  • Do you have volunteers willing to help you with your recycling program? Set up a team to help.
  • Can kids be enlisted to help educate, sort, rinse, or transport recyclables?
  • If there are costs involved – purchasing new bins, costs for collection services – is there money in the school or PTA budget to cover these expenses? If not, can you find other ways to raise the money – fundraisers, donations in kind, sponsorships, grants?

Clearly label your recycling bins with the items to be placed inside.
Clearly label your recycling bins with the items to be placed inside. | Source

Step Two - Implement your program

  • What items will you collect?
  • Place marked recycling bins at each trash collection point.
  • If you choose to recycle items like yogurt cups, where will these be dumped and washed?
  • Graphic signs, with pictures of typical items to be placed in recycling or trash, encourage kids to put recyclable materials in the correct bin.
  • How will you educate the kids, teachers, and parents? Assemblies, newsletters, teachers’ meetings, PTA meetings, bulletin boards all can be useful.
  • Does the custodial staff need assistance? Separating recyclables will add to their workload, so they may need support.
  • Can you assign a parent volunteer to help at lunchtime, assisting kids with separation of items?
  • Where are the recycling collection dumpsters located? Should they be moved closer to the cafeteria?
  • If you rely on volunteers to transport items, set up a schedule and solicit and train volunteers.

If your school has no recycling pickup available

  • First, ask why it doesn’t. Even if it takes awhile, it will be much easier for you and the chances of success are far greater if items can be picked up directly from the school.
  • Research companies in your city that will pick up recycling. Some will do it for free or may even pay for items like paper or cardboard.
  • If this isn’t possible, find out if your city has a recycling center. Decide what items are easily collected for recycling. You may decide that plastic cups and bottles are too messy and that maybe you just want to collect clean cardboard.
  • Set up a collection point, boxes or bins in a convenient location, then ask for one or more volunteers to check the bins and to be responsible for transporting the items to a recycling center.
  • Keep tabs on the recycling location and be sure to ask the staff how it’s working.
  • You may decide that this is simply too much work, and that your efforts might be better spent elsewhere, for example, focusing on getting folks to reduce the waste they create or possibly setting up a composting program.

Step Three - Maintaining your program

  • Once things are running smoothly, be sure to check back periodically to make sure the program stays on track.
  • If your school has an orientation night or an email newsletter, write up information about the program to distribute to parents and teachers.
  • If you simply don’t have the resources or volunteers to successfully recycle items at lunch, don’t sweat it. Focus on other areas that have a better chance for success.

A final note: For recycling to work, there must be a market for recycled goods. One easy way to help the environment is to purchase items with recycled content whenever possible – paper, napkins, paper towels, toilet paper, cardboard. This will create a demand for all of those items that you’re sending to the recycling center, a critical part of the cycle.

Remember that any steps you take bring you closer to zero-waste. Even if you never get there, you can make significant reductions that will help reduce greenhouse gases related to landfill decomposition. The point is not to make yourself or the people at your school miserable. The point is to move towards a more sustainable model and to teach the students at your school by example. Ideally, at some point, sustainable practices will simply become a way of life for our children, and you can start the process.


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