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Reduce Waste at School

There are lots of ways that we can reduce waste at school. By thinking ahead and being creative, you can reduce your impact on the environment and save money at the same time.

Pack a no-waste lunch

A "no-waste lunch" is a meal that does not end up in the trash. You can buy food items in bulk then put them in reusable containers to carry to school.

Example: Use a reusable lunch box or bag and fill it with your lunch in reusable containers. You could also include a cloth napkin – don't forget to bring it home so you can wash it and use it again. Another idea is to ask your school cafeteria to use items such as reusable trays, napkins and silverware.

Benefits: You create less waste by using washable containers to pack your lunch. Packing your food in reusables is typically less expensive than buying food that comes in disposable containers.

Take only as much food as you will eat

More than 20 percent of the food we buy gets thrown away. One way to figure out how much food you waste is to measure and track all the food you throw away from your lunch over a fixed period of time. Then you could brainstorm ways to reduce how much food you are throwing in the garbage.

Eat what you takeExample: If you are bringing lunch from home, you can use an icepack so that it stays fresh until it is eaten. If you buy from the school cafeteria, only take a small portion of food; if you're still hungry, go back for seconds!

Benefits: About 48 million tons of food are thrown away in the United States each year. By taking only what you can eat or sharing your extras with a friend, you are taking steps to waste less and save money.

Carry a few reusablesDurable 3-ring notebook

Refillable mechanical pencilAt the beginning of each school year, it seems like we need to buy lots of supplies. When you go to the store, look for durable, long-lasting supplies and reuse them.

Example: Refillable pens and pencils, a durable backpack and a lunchbox are all great examples of products that can be used over and over again.

Benefits: Items that can be used more than once will reduce waste. If you take care of them, they will last a long time — and maybe you won't have to buy new ones the next year!

Use less paper

Even though we recycle much of the paper we use, it is still a significant part of what we throw in the trash. Think about all of the paper you've thrown away that only had writing on one side. Those pieces of paper could have been used a second time, potentially cutting your paper use in half. Also, by buying paper and notebooks that contain recycled paper, you complete the recycling loop and create less waste.

Example: Make room in your classroom or at home to put paper that has only been used on one side. Use that paper for notes, or feed the blank side into your printer for draft documents. You can also make scratch pads out of that single-sided paper by binding one side. Can you "go paperless?" Ask your teacher if you can hand in assignments on a computer disk or via e-mail instead.

Benefits: Because paper and packaging make up such a large part of our garbage, by using less paper you can reduce up to 40 percent of the trash that is thrown away.

Conduct a junk mail campaign

Reduce unwanted mailAnother large source of paper that is thrown away every day is mail that's unsolicited and unwanted — "junk mail." You can help your school office collect unwanted mail and contact the companies to get off their lists.

Example: Make this into a project by measuring how much unsolicited mail your school receives in a week. Tear off the mailing labels and send them back to the mailer along with a note saying, "Please take us off your list." After a few months, measure the unsolicited mail again. You can then determine how much waste has been eliminated; think about the staff time saved by not having to go through all of that unwanted mail.

Benefits: Decreasing junk mail not only saves paper and reduces paper waste — it also takes less time to sort and deliver the mail each day.

Made in the shade: Be sun safe at school

Most of the average person's lifetime sun exposure occurs before the age of 18.

Even when you're at school, you don't spend all of your time inside. Kids spend lots of time outdoors in the sun — recess, physical education classes, after-school activities and sports programs. Being outside can be enjoyable and healthy, but too much exposure to sunlight can be dangerous.

Children need to take special care, since most of the average person's lifetime sun exposure occurs before the age of 18. Students and teachers can learn about sun-related health effects and take steps to prevent over-exposure.

Use Sunscreen: SPF 15+
Wear a hat!
Cover up
  • Always Use Sunscreen. Generously apply a broad spectrum sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15 to exposed skin. Re-apply every 2 hours when working or playing outdoors — even "waterproof" sunscreen can come off when you towel off, sweat, or spend extended periods of time in the water. You need to protect your skin on cloudy days too!
  • Limit Time in the Midday Sun. The sun's rays are strongest between 10a.m. and 4p.m. Try to limit exposure to the sun during these hours.
  • Seek Shade. Staying under cover is one of the best ways to protect yourself from the sun. No cover? Bring along your own shade – try an umbrella!
  • Wear a Hat. A hat with a wide brim can keep you cool and offers good sun protection to your eyes, ears, face, and the back of your neck — areas particularly prone to overexposure to the sun.
  • Cover Up. Wearing tightly woven, loose-fitting, and full-length clothing is a good way to protect your skin from the sun's UV rays.
  • Wear Sunglasses. Sunglasses that provide 99-100% UVA and UVB protection will greatly reduce sun exposure that can lead to cataracts and other eye damage. Check the label when buying sunglasses.
  • Avoid Sunlamps and Tanning Parlors. The light source from sunbeds and sunlamps damages the skin and unprotected eyes. Your health is more important than a wintertime tan.

  • Join the SunWise School Program, a free national environmental and health education program for grades K-8 focusing on sun-safe behavior. The U.S. EPA is coordinating the program, which features a curriculum and members-only interactive Web site with activities, games and links.


Organize a school-wide rummage sale

Hold a rummage saleRummage sales are a great way to pass along items that you no longer want to someone who might need them. Instead of throwing your unwanted items away, they will be put to good use.

Example: Plan a class or school-wide rummage sale with your teacher. Collect donations for the sale. Sell used items such as clothes, furniture and sporting goods at an end-of-the-year sale.

Benefits: Buying used items is not only cheaper, but someone else's trash might be your treasure!

Used Chic
Buying things "used" is inexpensive and prevents waste. Don't let current fashion fads dictate what you buy — set your own style!
Wool sweater Used radio
Sweater: $3.50 Yellow bicycle: $10 Radio: $15 Reducing waste:

Helping "U" reduce waste
Shopping the University of Minnesota's perpetual garage sale
Reuse program at the U of M
Reuse Center, 3009 Como Ave SE
612-626-9152 or
Public Hours: 8am-5:30pm Thursdays.
Payment by check only.

On the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus, the recycling program knew that there was a lot of "gold" in the trash bins of the "maroon and gold." With the help of a grant from the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, they established a program for the recovery of materials for reuse.

The Reuse Program lists items available for reuse on their Web site, using it as a "virtual warehouse" with pictures and descriptions of their constantly-shifting stock. They list furniture, office equipment, office supplies, and even computer equipment.

Some of the items are available only to university departments, while others are available at low or no cost to students and the general public. When this kind of energy is dedicated top reducing waste, "the Ski-U-Mah's the limit."

Reduce School Bus Idling, Improve Air Quality

Reduce Bus Emissions
Line The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that diesel fumes contain 40 toxic chemicals, including 15 carcinogens.

Toxic chemicals in diesel emissions increase the risk of asthma and diseases of the heart and lung, and are responsible for as many as 125,000 cancers nationwide. Research has shown that students on school buses are exposed to significant levels of particulate pollution.

In May 2002, Minnesota adopted legislation to protect the health and safety of children from harmful diesel bus emissions. This law calls for schools to reduce the unnecessary idling of school buses in front of schools, and reroute bus parking zones away from air-intake vents (or if necessary, relocate the air-intake vents).

The Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance worked with the Sierra Club and others to help your school protect students from diesel emissions. A toolkit was created, including sample letters to help explain the new law, posters and camera-ready signs for Clean Air Zones. Learn more at

Get informed and become more aware

Get a clue
Your local lending library is one of best-known examples of a successful reuse program.

Talk to your teacher about starting or joining an environmental group at school or look for ways to increase your awareness of natural surroundings and environmental issues.

Example: Set up a school waste reduction campaign with your environmental club. You could turn visits to nature areas and parks into service learning class projects.

Benefits: Being informed about environmental issues will give you the knowledge to help yourself and others become environmentally friendly. Connecting your activities with nature helps to increase appreciation and gives extra motivation to take actions to preserve and protect it.

Sharing Environmental Education Knowledge (SEEK) is Minnesota's first stop for resources for environmental education. Over 100 organizations list resources in SEEK's searchable database, including curricula, tours, speakers and a calendar of events and learning opportunities.

Case in point: Duluth School gets A's in Reduceology 101

Stowe Elementary School in Duluth instituted a waste reduction program in the school that focused on the cafeteria. They switched from disposables to reusables, started to separate recyclables, increased food ordering accuracy, and set up a vermiculture project (worm bins) to compost food waste.

Stowe ElementaryIn a second project, they created model service learning projects. The projects took what students learned within the classroom and applied them outside of the classroom for the benefit of the Stowe enrollment community. Projects included reseeding a bare field adjacent to the school, building a composting system for the zoo, helping control trail erosion along some park trails, and creating awareness of how drains link directly to the river by stenciling them. They also organized a community-based service learning project by creating a nature trail near the school.

Their most recent project focuses on alternative energy. Stowe School purchased solar panels, a wind turbine and an inside meter to measure the energy created and the electricity used in the school's worm composting building. The school will teach students about energy generation and consumption for grades kindergarten through fifth grade.

Visit their Web site to learn more about Stowe's environmental programs, including their online guide for environmental service learning projects, "Serving the Environment: A Guide to Best Practices."

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