The United States produces 4.9 pounds of waste per person per day. The process used to create the items that become waste and the processing of this waste impacts the environment and human health. Raw materials, like oil, metals, cotton, and wood, are extracted from the environment to make products. These raw materials are transported to factories which use energy and emit greenhouse gasses to process them into products. Products are then transported to consumers. When these products are thrown out, more energy and materials must be used to transport them and process them as waste. Every step of this process can harm the environment and human health by emitting greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change and air and water pollution that can harm people and habitats.
There are many things we can do at home or school to reduce waste. When possible, avoid single-use products like plastic bags or containers and instead use products you can wash and reuse. Recycle everything you can, like plastic, glass, metal and paper, because making new products from recovered or recycled materials, rather than raw materials, uses less resources and energy. Refuse or reduce the amount of unnecessary products that would only go to waste. Waste reduction can occur in the kitchen and cafeteria. About one-third of the world's food is never eaten—think of all the energy and water used to grow and produce that food! Waste reduction in the kitchen can start by only buying what you will use and then composting what you can’t eat. Composting food rather than sending it to the landfill will result in less emissions and improve soil.
Eventually, your school or community can work towards Zero Waste where people produce less waste and reuse or recycle the rest.
Connecting to Issue Investigation
The solution of waste reduction can connect to a variety of investigations. After learning of local climate change impacts, students can work on reducing waste to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Investigations looking into the environmental and health impacts of local facilities and factories involved in the waste stream (ex. landfills, trash incinerators, oil refineries) can lead to a solution of reducing waste so students and their community are contributing less to the problem. These investigations can also have an environmental justice connection if the health issues are disproportionately impacting a neighborhood or community.
For those working towards green school awards, this action can help to reduce a school’s environmental impact by contributing less to the waste stream.
Facilitating Student Action
Students should continue to have opportunities to share ideas and opinions throughout the process of identifying, planning, and implementing action. Listed here are just a few ways students can stay engaged while working on this solution—but there are many more! The complexity of each activity/task can be adjusted for each grade level.
Create - students can create new waste reduction programs at school. These programs can start in the classroom or the cafeteria and eventually expand to schoolwide.
Educate - students can educate others on the negative impacts of waste on the environment and community. Education campaigns should include suggestions on how everyone can get involved in reducing their waste.
Advocate - students can advocate local and state governments to reduce the amount of single-use items that commonly turn into waste like plastic bags. Students can also advocate for expanding or making it easier to recycle or compost within the community.
Monitor - students can monitor the types and quantity of waste collected at their school. This data can inform next steps like installing recycling and composting bins or starting education campaigns on how to reduce or eliminate common sources of waste.
Share and Celebrate - students can share their work with the school community by giving presentations, creating displays, or writing and delivering morning announcements. Students can also write articles, press releases or invite reporters from the school paper and the local newspaper.
Reduce Waste Resources
Check out The Story of Stuff to learn why waste is so damaging to the environment and people. The site includes videos, lessons, and action stories.
The Consumption and Waste Pathway for the National Wildlife Federation Eco-Schools program is a great resource to start with. The pathway includes school audits that look at different sources of waste at your school.
The Zero Waste Schools resources from Seven Generations Ahead includes toolkits for Zero Waste and Food Waste programs. Though the resources were designed for Chicago-area schools, most of the materials work for any school by providing practical advice on where to place bins, how to conduct a waste audit, and waste sorting signs you can print.
Examples are always useful! This 12 minute video from Park Forest Elementary in central Pennsylvania has students show you how their school is working towards zero waste.