School recycling toolkit

Student recycling paper

Are you ready to start a school recycling program, or improve your existing program?

Cost and benefits of recycling

Schools are frequently interested in expanding opportunities to recycle, but are wary, believing that adding or expanding recycling programs will increase costs. See how the costs of recycling and trash hauling services — and the impact expanding recycling may have on a school's budget.

For more information, visit the School recycling: cost and benefits web page.

School waste study

How much waste is generated by Minnesota schools? How much of this could be recycled? To help answer these questions, the MPCA partnered with Hennepin County and the city of Minneapolis to take a closer look at what schools throw away.

PDF icon Digging Deep through School Trash - A waste composition analysis


Use the steps in this toolkit to help your school get a recycling program organized and operating successfully.

A successful recycling program needs support from the decision-makers. At a school, the decision-makers are often the superintendent, principal, school board, or facility managers. To gain their support, set a meeting to share:

  1. The benefits of a recycling program
  2. Examples of what other schools have done
  3. Your enthusiasm for the project

Learn how District 197 gained management support in their high school and, eventually, their district.

Post-it noteYour recycling team is a small group of people who will collect data, design the recycling program, and teach students and staff how the new system works.

Within this team you’ll need to identify a champion. This person facilitates the entire process and communicates progress and challenges to the decision-makers. Below is a list of people to invite. Aim for a team of at least 4-5 people, including a custodial or kitchen staff person.

  • School administrator
  • School procurement or business official
  • A staff person from the county solid waste office
  • Custodial / maintenance staff
  • Kitchen / food service staff
  • Interested teachers
  • Community education coordinator
  • Student Council or student environmental group representative
  • Parents or community members
  • Leaders of other environmental efforts happening at your schools

When the team is established, hold a first meeting that includes a discussion with your county solid waste officer/county recycling coordinator to talk about local waste management programs and resources.
In this video, learn how Transfiguration School and Church, located in Oakdale, formed their recycling team:

Woman standing next to garbage canYour team's first task is to get a handle on the current waste and recycling situation. To do this, you should:

Conducting a building walk-through. A building walk-through will help identify types of materials to target for waste reduction or recycling. You'll record information about where the waste is produced, where the bins are located, and how many bins are in use. Use the data collection sheet below for your building walk-through.

Start tracking the weight or volume of your garbage and recycling. You can learn about your current waste amounts through records or by directly looking at, weighing, or measuring the trash. Use the data collection sheet or one of the suggested links below.


 Other tracking options

Your school may be able to track waste and recycling information through a data management system such as:

As you begin tracking the waste and recycling, it's also a good time to examine your waste contract.

Work with your school procurement or business official, head custodian, and administration to review the existing contract. When reviewing the waste contract, consider these questions:

  • How often is trash and recycling picked up?
  • Are the dumpsters full when they are picked up?
  • What kinds of recycling materials are being picked up?
  • What kinds of recycling materials would you like to be picked up?
  • Can we negotiate changes, if needed, without penalty?
  • When does the current contract expire?
  • Can the hauler provide any data about what they are picking up at our school?

The data you collected from your waste tracking will help you to identify areas to reduce waste and increase recycling. Work with your hauler and county solid waste office to discuss recycling options available in your county. If your waste contract needs to change, you will need to negotiate with your hauler.

Right-size and save

As begin to take steps to reduce waste and increase recycling you'll need to "right-size" your dumpsters and collection frequency. "Right-sizing" is often where school districts can see substantial savings. Your waste contract will influence this process.


Resource Management Contract places value on resource conservation services rather than on disposal. For more information about this type of contract, contact your county solid waste office or MPCA.

At this stage you should know what you plan to collect. Cardboard, mixed paper, bottles, cans, and food waste are common items collected schools.

Recycling plan

A recycling plan will help you identify key elements, goals, and logistics in your recycling program. The recycling plan will help your team identify:

  • How many bins your school or district will need
  • Bin location
  • Who will be collecting, maintaining, and monitoring the materials
  • How will you monitor progress
  • Storage, safety, and security

File Recycling plan template

Bins and labels

Bins and containers play a crucial role in your recycling program. Using consistent labels and bins throughout your building will help to increase participation and decrease contamination.


County specific signage

Bins and budget

The direct costs associated with a recycling program should have a short payback time. More than likely, the greatest one-time capital cost will come from purchasing the containers. However, your school may be able to save money from "right-sizing" your collection containers and frequency of collection.

Options for bins

  • Ask your hauler if they provide bins or grants
  • Check with your county solid waste office to see if they have a recycling bin program
  • Talk to your beverage vendor. They may provide containers as part of the contract to sell their products in your facility
  • Ask a local business or service club to donate containers
  • Apply for the Coca-Cola/Keep America Beautiful bin grant
  • Purchase containers at a bulk rate through the state's Cooperative Purchasing Venture
  • Tight budget? Use sturdy cardboard boxes or design and build your own containers as class projects.

Pilot your bins and signs

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

  • Setup 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 feed back.
  • Make improvements based on the experience.

Set a goal

Compared to your baseline, do you want to increase the recycling rate by 20 percent? Decrease trash volume by 30 percent? Reaching this goal will depend on education and expectations for participation. 

According to a waste composition study, fifty percent of school waste could be managed through an organics composting programs.

Talk with your county solid waste office to learn about options for food-to-livestock or organics collection.


Recycling cafeteria food waste from Ramsey County and Saint Paul Public Schools.

When kicking off your program, make a communication plan and add it to your File Recycling plan template. Set expectations that everyone participates, including supervisors, staff, coaches, students, and visitors. If custodial staff were not a part of your recycling team, take extra time to educate them about the new system.

The best way to get people to participate is to help them understand the importance and purpose of the program, how it works, and how they can get involved. Some ideas:

  • Kick off the new recycling program at a school assembly
  • Create a recycling guide for teachers
  • Have older students teach the younger students about the benefits of recycling and how to sort
  • Include in the school newspaper and announcements
  • Use the school’s website, email, and social media
  • Include lessons about waste and recycling in the classroom
  • Have the student create educational posters or videos
  • Present to the school board or PTA

When designing your program, be sure it includes a plan to track your progress. By doing this you'll also identify areas that may need adjustments.

  • Measure how the trash and recycling volumes or weights are changing
  • Make observations about contamination and problem areas
  • Informally survey participants to understand existing issues or address problem areas

Tips to increase participation

  • Get a commitment. During your kickoff, create an activity for people to commitment to recycle. For example, create a giant poster to sign or ask people to write their reason for recycling on white boards then post their picture.
  • Give feedback. Let staff, students, and visitors know how their recycling efforts are working. Put posters next to the bins or use the school news networks to publicize recycling milestones, when a goal is met or when adjusting the program.

Use your waste and recycling tracking sheets to assess whether your trash and recycling dumpsters are meeting your program needs. Consider the following questions when reviewing your hauling services:

  • How often are the trash dumpsters serviced?
  • Are the dumpster full each time they are serviced? If not, ask your hauler to reduce the frequency of pickup or reduce the size of the dumpster(s). Many schools have excess trash dumpster capacity and pay more for trash than they need to.
  • How often are the recycling carts or dumpsters serviced?
  • Are recycling carts full each time they are serviced?
  • Are they ever full a day or two (or more) before they are serviced? If your recycling carts or dumpsters seem to fill up quickly, ask your hauler to increase the size or number of recycling carts or dumpsters or ask them to increase the frequency of pickup. Many schools fill their recycling containers early in the week, leaving no room for the recyclables collected the rest of the week.

Adjusting the contract

Meet with the school's contract representative to address ideas for changing the school's garbage collection. Be sure to bring the waste and recycling tracking sheet. After meeting with the school’s contract representative, meet with your waste and recycling hauler to request the service changes and receive a price estimate.

Once your hauler makes the requested service changes, continue to track the waste and recycling to ensure that the changes to the collection are meeting the needs of your school.


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.

To ensure that a successful program continues, the recycling team needs to help recycling become a part of the culture.

  • Have school business officials track waste costs and volumes as part of 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 the schools energy policy and/or general school policy
  • Include recycling guidelines in new student and staff orientation and training

Have you considered broader sustainability goals?

From kindergarten through high school, a typical child spends up to 15,000 hours in the classroom. By incorporating sustainable practices, school administrators and facilities staff can help reduce operating costs and environmental impacts, while promoting a healthy environment for students and staff.

Sustainable building and operations

A healthy sustainable school is an environmentally safe and healthy learning environment that is clean, free of environmental hazards, and in good repair. Use these resources to help your school become a green school.

  • PDF icon Healthy Sustainable Schools Guide

    Part I provides background on key environmental topics that impact school facilities and offers resources to implement changes. Part II provides a checklist for each topics to help teams work through the issues.

  • MN Green Schools Coalition: A program of the US Green Building Council promoting green school practices across Minnesota.
  • Clean Energy Resource Teams: Empowers Minnesota communities to adopt energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy technologies and practices.

After implementing their successful recycling program, the recycling team at Transfiguration School and Church (Oakdale) realized they could carry that enthusiasm into other sustainability projects.

Resources for educators

Case studies

PDF icon Dakota County, District 197 case study

Located in the metro area, Dakota County School District operates five elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school. Their goal:

  • Improve the existing recycling program at all eight schools
  • Improve the source separated organic program at three schools
  • Expand source separated organics to the other five schools