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Celebrating Sustainability

How to Improve Recycling & Sustainability in Schools

A new academic year is quickly approaching, and we're diving into waste and recycling solutions for schools and universities.

Ryan Deer | July 28, 2021


Even with personal laptops, Zoom classrooms, and term papers submitted through the cloud, the world of in-person academia won’t break free from collages on construction paper, extracurricular fliers, and securely stapled course syllabuses anytime soon.

After the unprecedented school years of the COVID-19 pandemic, a return to primary, secondary, and higher education will signal the resumption of routine consumption on campuses around the country—a cycle known to yield mountains of food waste, paper, cardboard, and plastic during a typical seven-hour school day.

Yet, a full-scale return to schools is a unique opportunity to create a "new normal" with sustainability at the forefront. And as educators from pre-K to university return to a world of misprints, basketball hoop waste bins, and chaos in the cafeteria, the ability to recycle more materials and curb waste is a curriculum worth exploring.

How Much Waste Does An Average School Produce?

American schools are a microcosm of the country—each member of the population creates a considerable amount of waste per day. As of 2018, each U.S. citizen was producing 4.9 pounds of waste per day. Measured within the confines of a public institution, the average college student produces over 1.75 pounds of on-campus waste per day, while primary and secondary school students average just under a pound between the first and final bell.

And it all adds up.

Classrooms, cafeterias, dorms, recreation centers, stadiums, and libraries... Operationally, a web of connected spaces makes managing the solid waste output of a school or campus a complex job, especially for those maintaining or pursuing effective recycling programs. 

On a positive note—between paper products, cardboard, plastics, aluminum cans, and unwanted food—much of the solid waste produced by academic institutions is capable of being recycled. Some estimates assert that 85% of a school’s overall waste stream is recyclable.

However, when facilities managers and administrators alike are tasked with maintaining the education, enforcement, and economics of a program on their own, the real landfill diversion rate is likely a quarter of that.

That’s because the volumes of waste produced are staggering. 

The largest proportion of school waste, unsurprisingly, is a result of the over four billion school lunches served per year. Cafeterias in the US are plagued with a food waste problem, where as high as 53% of a students’ plates are finding the garbage. In fact, the US school system produces 530,000 tons of food waste per year, which costs as much as $9.7 million per day to manage.

[More from RoadRunner’s Waste Watchers blog: Understanding the Food Waste Problem]

It’s estimated that 51% of school waste is organic material suitable for composting (scraps, spoiled food, food-soiled paper, etc.). But without a robust composting program, heavy food and soiled recyclables more often find the wrong can, a charge then levied against your school’s waste bill.

After food waste, mixed paper looms large, accounting for roughly a quarter to one-third of all waste production. Pre-pandemic numbers suggest that a typical classroom used 75 sheets of paper per day. As a whole, the average primary/secondary school used 2,000 sheets per day, translating to a U.S. public school system that gobbles up 34 billion pages of paper per year. 

Of the remaining stream, a considerable and growing contingent features single-use plastics, e-waste, cardboard, and aluminum cans. While there are few studies or research that validate actual percentages or volume by weight, experts agree that the pandemic will force both e-waste and plastic packaging (as an increased sanitary measure) to rise after a return to in-person instruction.

Predictable or not, the volume of waste can be overwhelming and costly. The good news is that, with the right structure and active participation, recycling more and spending less is very possible.

Emphasizing the Importance of a Circular Economy

As educators, schools and universities have the opportunity to teach students about the importance of recycling and the far-reaching benefits of sustainability. In an article from Berkeley Research, Lin Tien King, manager of Berkeley’s Campus Recycling and Refuse Services, said, “If we build this behavior in all our students, it’s apt to become a habit they take forward into the 'real world,' whether they become a public-sector employee or a future Google CEO.”

It won’t be an impossible sell, either. Increasingly, students have shown the willingness and desire for their schools to become more respectful of the environment. An eight-year research study in the United Kingdom discovered that 91% of students believed their institution should actively incorporate and promote sustainable development. Meanwhile, in a 2021 Princeton Review survey of over 14,000 college applicants, 75% responded that a school’s environmental commitment was a factor in their decision.

The parents of those students have made their voices heard as well. In a survey of parents with high school-aged children seeking college enrollment, 21% of parents became more interested in a school’s commitment to sustainability than they were before the pandemic.

Regardless of grade level, educating the student body on the global benefits of a circular economy—an industrial concept of designing out waste and pollution while keeping products and materials in use—should be a prerequisite. And demonstrating those lessons through action should be what schools do best. 

To help, we’ve distilled our sustainable recommendations for schools in the form of our own prowess: instituting or improving a recycling program.

Get in the Spirit

While a waste audit (analyzing the waste streams of your building or campus) can be an important first step, oftentimes, focusing on people over process is more important in making a school recycling program successful.

Thus, laying the groundwork for universal buy-in is a must—and that means showing the school means business. Organize an advisory committee or appoint a faculty member to serve as sustainability officer. Announce your recycling initiative to the student body and encourage students to form a group, club, or committee that would allow them to get involved. And a catchy name or slogan for the initiative never hurts either.

When it comes to incentivizing, drive recycling participation through recognition and competitions—like having each classroom weigh both the garbage and recycling can at the end of the day, recording the numbers for the entire quarter, and awarding the group that produces the least waste and most recycling. Or, set an annual school or campus goal for recycling by weight, with a collective prize for reaching it.

Embrace Compost

Composting in lieu of trashing food waste has the potential to save both your budget and the environment at the same time. 

Place compost bins in cafeterias to decrease the size of heavy waste bins. Ideally, containers should not be larger than 20 gallons to ensure that the volume is easy to service. These containers should have lids with a small opening to allow for plates to be scraped and for paper plates, napkins, PLA utensils, or compostable cups to be disposed of sustainably. All composting waste stations should come with easy-to-read signage that clearly says what is acceptable in the bin to produce a clean waste stream.

If you need help finding the proper receptacle, this website can help. And if you need to arrange regular pickup, RoadRunner’s FleetHaul service offers customized compost hauling solutions and cohesive programming in a number of our major markets.

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle Paper

As mentioned, schools churn through a massive amount of paper. The first step schools can take to reduce waste is an obvious one: reduce usage. A carryover from pandemic-era cyber school, allow students to turn in digital assignments instead of wasting paper, and set all campus printers to print double-sided.

Wherever possible, you can also recommend reusing “scrap” paper for other assignments, such as the back event flyers from a past event or trimming partially used pages into half-sheets.

Understandably, the complete elimination of paper is unrealistic in a school setting, and usage will endure digital trends. That’s why recycling paper should be easy for students. Have your admins or sustainability officer get a sense of foot traffic within the school, as well as the locations of existing waste collection points. Remember: Your program will only be as successful as it is intuitive and convenient, so think about opportunities to redraw the trash and recycling bin map in order to capture more paper and divert it from landfill. 

Break Free from Plastic

Individual, personal, and hermetically sealed may be trending because of the pandemic, but reducing plastic in school settings will be a theme of many generations to come. In the cafeteria, work with food service providers to reduce unnecessary plastic packaging or seek out sustainable alternatives like biodegradable utensils, plates, and trays.

As a campus initiative, provide students with reusable water bottles to refill at water stations to cut back on plastic bottles. For all schools, a designated bin for bottles and cans should occupy each classroom. And for colleges, providing a separate or commingled recycling bin for each dorm room can be effective.

Responsibly Manage E-Waste

Whether your district or university purchased more electronic devices, and/or delayed upgrades, because of the pandemic, e-waste will be inevitable.

Before you consider replacing devices, check out our resources for responsibly recycling the outgoing electronics.

How RoadRunner Works With Schools & Institutions

RoadRunner has a long history of success in helping academic and religious institutions recycle more, spend less, and educate their pupils in the virtues of “smarter recycling.”

Working with Pittsburgh’s Carlow University, a private school enrolling over 2,000 students, RoadRunner has helped the campus divert 31% of its landfill waste into valuable recycling streams while achieving 22% cost savings since the beginning of our partnership.

Utilizing strategic proprietary insights and our third-party network of haulers, coupled with coordination with existing haulers, RoadRunner provides the complex, iterative solutions that schools need, evidenced by our most recent initiative with University of Pittsburgh. In 2021, we hauled and found end markets for 14,000 pounds of student-donated textiles and clothing that otherwise might have been sent to landfill.

Our end-to-end and sustainable management, ability to consolidate diverse waste streams, and ongoing customer success support continue to be a valuable part of our partnerships with Howard University, University of Pennsylvania, and Marquette University, as well as numerous school districts and charter schools across the country.

Want to work with us? Connect with a RoadRunner strategic specialist for a lesson in smarter recycling.



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