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Are you ready to start a school recycling program, or improve your existing program? Use the steps in this toolkit to help your school get a recycling program organized and operating successfully.

Gain support

A successful recycling program needs support from the decision-makers. Meet with the superintendent, principal, school board, or facility managers to explain the benefits of a recycling program and examples of what other schools have done.

Form a recycling team

Your recycling team will collect data, design the recycling program, and teach students and staff how the new system works. Identify a team champion to facilitate the process and communicate with decision-makers. Aim for a team of at least 4-5 people, including a custodial or kitchen staff person. Loop in someone from your county solid waste office to help you with resources. Other possible team members include school administrators or procurement staff, student leaders, or parents.

Track your waste

Conduct a building walk-through to identify targets for waste reduction or recycling. Note where the waste is produced, where the bins are, and how many bins are used.

Start tracking your garbage and recycling by weight or volume, using school records, or by measuring it directly. According to a waste composition study, fifty percent of school waste could be managed through organics composting programs. How much food waste and other organics are thrown out in your school?

Examine your waste contract

Work with your school procurement or business official, head custodian, and administration to review the school's existing waste contract.

  • How often is trash and recycling picked up?
  • Are dumpsters full at pick-up time?
  • What kinds of recycling materials are being picked up?
  • Is there a penalty for changing the contract? When does the contract expire?
  • What data can the hauler provide about your school's waste?

Your waste tracking data will help you to identify areas to reduce waste and increase recycling. Discuss recycling options with your hauler and county solid waste office. "Right-sizing," or changing the size of your dumpsters or collection frequency, is often where school districts can see substantial savings.

Design your program

At this stage, you should know what types of recyclables you plan to collect. The next step is to create a recycling plan.

Set a goal. Do you want to increase the recycling rate by 20%? Decrease trash volume by 30%? Establish a baseline to measure your progress against.

Communications plan

Set expectations that everyone participates. Maybe create a recycling guide for teachers. Use the school’s website, email, and social media to promote the program.

Use consistent labels and bins throughout your building to increase participation and decrease contamination.

Bins and budget

The greatest cost will likely be purchasing the containers. Ask your hauler and county solid waste office if they provide bins or grants. Your beverage vendor may provide containers as part of the contract with your facility. Local businesses or service clubs might be able to donate bins. Purchase containers at a bulk rate through the state's Cooperative Purchasing Venture.

Before deciding about building-wide bins and signs, pilot test a station to observe if any changes need to be made.

  • Set up a recycling and trash station at one or two locations
  • Provide several students and employees with a bag of recyclables to sort. Watch for assumptions, questions, and difficulties they may have. Invite them to give you feedback.
  • Make improvements based on the experience.

Kick-off your program

Take steps to help students and staff understand the importance and purpose of the program. Implement your communications plan and mark your program kickoff by:

  • Presenting the new recycling program at a school assembly
  • Having older students teach the younger students about the benefits of recycling and how to sort
  • Promoting the program in the school newspaper and announcements
  • Including lessons about waste and recycling in the classroom
  • Having the student create educational posters or videos
  • Presenting to the school board or PTA

Consider asking people to make a commitment to recycling. For example, create a giant poster and ask people to sign it and write their reason for recycling.

Track your progress, make adjustments

Measure how the trash and recycling volumes or weights are changing. Watch for recycling contamination and other problems. Survey participants to find out how they view the program.

Let staff and students know how the recycling efforts are going. Publicize recycling milestones when a goal is met or when adjusting the program.

Help recycling become a part of the school's culture. Have school business officials track waste costs and volumes as part of the monthly business. Include recycling duties in job descriptions for the procurement or business official, custodial/maintenance, and kitchen/food service staff. Budget for maintenance costs, such as bin replacements and staff time. Include recycling guidelines in new student and staff orientation and training

Celebrate success!

When you’ve reached your goal – such as doubling your recycling rate or reducing your total waste by 20 percent – celebrate! Host an ice cream social or play music during passing time. Write up a one-page summary of the results and share it with the school administration, parents, and community members.