Back to (Sustainable) School!

Back to (Sustainable) School!


Fall into Sustainability this Back to School Season

Here at RoadRunner HQ, we are thoroughly enjoying Fall for its cozy layers and pumpkin flavored everything. But, we are finding ourselves nostalgic for some of our favorite Back to School memories - fresh notebooks, new outfits, reunions with friends. So we decided to take part in the best way we know how - by taking a look at sustainable operations at the school level. From developing eco-focused curricula to launching easy, educational recycling programs, there are myriad ways to go green this school year. Let's talk trash, class! Read on for some of Professor RoadRunner's Back to School Best Practices

Q: Why is School the Perfect Setting for Sustainability?

As future-forward institutions, public schools, private schools, charter schools and universities are all natural laboratories for sustainability education. On one hand, schools are major consumers - they run through large quantities of energy, food and material every day. Therefore, they are in a unique position to promote responsible purchasing, conscious consumption and disposal before a receptive audience. On an operational level, there are much schools can - and should - be doing to divert material from landfill, conserve energy and purchase responsibly.

On the education side, schools are all about discovery and experimentation. In both daily practice and lesson material, they have the power to inspire the next generation of environmental stewards. Introductory discussion topics are broad-reaching in scope and give students a chance to engage with material that unites multiple disciplines. Younger students may explore "sustainability" as a concept, whereas those slightly older can dive into the idea of finite natural resources, bridging lofty earth science topics with their daily lives.



Projects that link school operations with learning opportunities abound. Some of our favorites include: growing a garden, developing a compost pile, launching a recycling program, implementing solar panels, sponsoring energy competitions, and promoting the benefits of reusable items. We'll dive into these later on...


Building Blocks: Sustainability for Schoolkids

They're never too young to start learning about stewardship! The building blocks of sustainability are all around, meaning that lessons for little ones dovetail naturally with other planned activities. For example, when teaching pre-school students about the five senses, teachers can use plants to demonstrate:

Smell: Pass around herbs like lavender, rosemary sage 

Sight: Provide a variety of plants and flowers, and ask students to describe what they see

Hear: Have students shake seed pods or rustle dried leaves

Taste: Students can taste familiar fruits and vegetables

Touch: Invite students to feel velveteen plants like lamb's ear or dusty miller

Presenting students at a young age with the beauty and variety of nature will help them begin to understand their own roles within it. Schools can build upon themes every year, challenging students to connect the dots between familiar aspects of their daily lives and the broader materials, networks and processes that provide for it. The following are a few sample lessons for varying age groups: 


  • The Lorax: a Seuss-ian legend about The Lorax, the lone environmentalist who "speaks for the trees." Ask students what they think of the greedy Once-ler, who chops down the trees. Older students can discuss the dichotomy between production and preservation, and whether it's possible for them to coexist.
  • The Adventures of a Plastic Bottle: A Story About Recycling by Alison Inches: In this adventure tale, a plastic bottle narrates its own journey from fabrication and use through to recycling. Have students ask questions about resources, reclamation and recycling. Ask about their consumption habits and what they think of the bottle's transformation at the end.


Hands-on Learning: Plant & Play

Take a field trip... after all, gardens are just classrooms without walls! From botany to biology, from earth science to history, nature has all the materials for excellent hands-on lessons. Here are a few ways to integrate the outdoors into your curriculum:

1. Grow a garden | If your school has a small plot of land available, take your biology lessons outside. From basic observations about textures and colors to studying soil health and understanding pH balances, gardening can illuminating for students of all ages. Younger kids can germinate beans or plant seeds, while older kids can study cell growth and flower reproduction life cycles. Feeling responsible for the outcome of a season's crops is a rewarding experience and the opportunities to discover and connect more about the natural world are limitless.

2. Visit the local landfill or recycling facility | Many landfills and MRFs offer free tours for school groups. Give students a glimpse of where their waste winds up, and discuss the differences between what is truly trash and what can be recycled. For extra credit, bring it home by asking students to conduct a classroom waste audit using the skills they learned from the field trip. They may be surprised to find out how much recyclable material they can pull from the waste stream.

3. Pilot a cafeteria compost | It's estimated that more than 40% of a school's waste stream is composed of compostable materials. Empower your students to waste less (and save the school money on disposal services) by helping them pilot a compost program. Start small with a backyard compost by collecting fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grinds and egg shells from the cafeteria. More advanced vermicompost projects can even collect meat and dairy. Have students monitor the nitrogen-carbon ("greens" and "browns") levels. The resulting fertilizer can even benefit that schoolyard garden your other classes are tending!


How to Implement an Educational Recycling Program in Your School

Lowered disposal costs, reduced fees, higher diversion rates, higher quality recyclables, environmental benefits... shall we go on? We can praise the benefits of implementing a clean stream recycling program from now through to Spring Break, but we'll spare you. Instead, here a few tips to kick-start your own school waste and recycling management program.


How to: Design a School Recycling Program

1. Begin by conducting an informal waste audit. Over a two week period, start to monitor what your institution is throwing away. It's important to understand the composition of your waste, so you can identify valuable recyclables. Ask questions like:

What items do we habitually dispose of?

Which waste stream is our largest?

What materials wind up in there?

What items could be diverted from landfill?

2. Analyze your building or campus. Start to get a sense of foot traffic and existing waste collection points. Your program will only be as successful as it is intuitive and convenient. Begin by identifying the areas that generate the highest volumes of waste and recyclables. Are there opportunities to re-draw the trash bin map in order to capture more materials and divert them from landfill?

3. Understand your spend and outline a budget. Which waste services are costing you the most right now? Make a list of the ideal services you'd like to implement. While it seems like more recycling means spending more money, more often than not, well-conceived recycling programs will net your school a cost savings!


Let's open the class to discussion! Does your school recycle across its campus? We'd love to hear about the programs you've designed. Do you have questions regarding specific materials or waste streams? Professor RoadRunner is more than happy to help identify ways your school can recycle more!


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