Stop! Don’t toss that lunch tray – learn how to sort it instead!

You’ve just finished your lunch and you have leftover waste such as your tray, milk carton, plastic wrapper, plastic container, and other trash items. Do you ever wonder where each of these items go? If you want to decide the fate of your waste, use this Lunchtime Sorting toolkit to sort through recyclables, food, and rubbish!

Toolkit Details


This toolkit address the following Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) within the Performance Expectations of NGSS for Grades: K-2 and 3-5

  • Asking Questions and Defining a Problem
  • Planning and Carrying out Investigations
  • Analyzing and Interpreting Data
  • Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
  • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
  • Obtaining Evaluating, and Communicating Information

Why It’s Important

Our landfills are filling up at an alarming rate often with resources that can be recycled or upcycled and used again. In order to reduce the amount of waste in landfills, it is important to sort out recyclables to get them to the right place. This reduces the amount of trash in the environment and allows us to reuse valuable resources.

What You Will Accomplish

Students take action by creating lunchtime sorting stations that will enable their peers to recycle some of their waste.

Teacher Project Plan Step-by-Step

Step 1: Determine Participants

Use our Lunchtime Sorting Sign-Up Sheet 

Use these ideas to put a team together:

  • Students from an existing Green or Eco Club 
  • Your school’s student council
  • A whole class
  • Create a new group and use the sign up sheet to add members

Step 2: Set Learning Objectives


  • Students will analyze their campus to determine the best areas to incorporate lunchtime sorting stations
    • Examples
      • Near the cafeteria entrance
      • Near lunch tables
      • Near existing lunch area trash cans
  • Students will track and evaluate the impact of their project by using the Lunchtime Sorting Pre-Project Audit worksheet

Project Management

  • Set goals on how much waste you want to divert from landfills (EX. bags of trash, weight, trash cans, etc.)
  • Students will identify routines to accomplish their goal
  • Students will practice leadership skills by delegating tasks to each other

Evaluation and Assessment

Step 3: Educate Students on the Environmental Impact of Waste

The resources provided can be shown as a slideshow or printed out as individual worksheets for students to learn.

Education Materials: Where Does Your Trash Go!?

We Produce A LOT of Trash!

Reducing the amount of trash in landfills is important because it reduces the amount of resources used by processing facilities. According to the EPA, the average American student creates 67 pounds of lunch packaging waste each school year. That’s more than 18,000 pounds of plastic, paper, and other non-food materials for just one average-sized elementary school. [1]

Waste Causes Greenhouse Gas Emissions!

Fossil fuels are used for a majority of production and waste sectors across the world. This means that fossil fuels are used both to produce our packaging and dispose of it after it has been discarded. All of these fossil fuels give off greenhouse gasses that warm our planet and lead to climate change. In 2019, landfills alone produced 91 million metric tons of CO2 in the United States. That’s the same weight as 455,000 blue whales! [2]

Landfills HURT Our Environment

The formation of landfills has numerous negative impacts on our environment. In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, landfills contaminate groundwater, cause deforestation, creates air pollution, and reduces soil fertility. Furthermore, biodiversity often decreases with 30-300 species being displaced for every hectare used for landfills. [3]

Watch this short video to learn why it’s important to reduce waste

Why Waste is a Social Justice Issue

Waste is often classified as an environmental justice issue due to the inequalities that exist between low and high income communities. Wealthy neighborhoods are often given more resources to manage waste while disenfranchised communities are frequently left with inefficient provisions to maintain a clean living environment. Furthermore, the same communities with lower incomes are usually placed in close proximity to waste management facilities where additional pollution burdens individuals.

Step 4: Pre-Activity Reflection Questions

Reflection and Educator Observation Questions

Use the following questions to guide students and reflect on what they’ve learned. Provided questions can be accessed in slideshow or worksheet format.

Reflection Questions

  • Describe places in your school or community where lunchtime sorting stations can be placed.
  • What are the most common types of waste you see? What type of sorting bins should you make?
  • Why do you think some individuals are not able or do not sort their waste?
  • Why is sorting waste important for the environment?

Educator Observation

  • What answers did you hear from the reflection questions?

Step 5: Take Action – Lunchtime Sorting Lesson Plan

Lead students through the “Lunchtime Sorting” activity with guided instructions. Check out “Pro Tips” with each step for useful help:

1. Assign Roles

  • Determine who and how many students/staff/volunteers are participating.
  • Invite participants to take part in managing lunch sorting responsibilities.
  • Use the Lunchtime Sorting Sign-Up Sheet to track additional participants

2. Conduct a Pre-Audit

To understand how waste is managed at your school, it is important to conduct a pre-audit; this can be completed with the Lunchtime Sorting Pre-Project Audit worksheet. Keep note of what you analyze and compare them with your final statistics at the end of the campaign.

3. Design Your Sorting Station Plan

  • Figure out what type of sorting stations you would like to implement. 
    • Examples of sorting station elements include:
      • Recycle
        • Plastic bottles, clean plastic containers, metal cans, glass
      • Liquids
        • For leftover milk, water, juice, etc. so the empty container can be recycled (all liquids can be dumped down a custodial drain)
      • Stack Trays 
        • Stacking trays reduces the amount of space used in a landfill
      • Food Donation
      • Compost
      • Landfill
        • All other items including items contaminated with food, flimsy plastic wrappers, chip bags, baggies, small plastics like utensils and straws, etc. 
  • Determine the location of your sorting station(s).
    • Look at a map of your school. Determine where sorting stations should be placed.

Reach out to your local waste hauler to see what resources they accept for recycling.

Add a strainer to your liquids bucket/bin to filter out any accidental solids dropped into the liquids bucket. Remind kids to pour out liquids close to the top of the bucket so it doesn’t splash on them or their friends!

Contact your school’s tray manufacturer to see if they collect used trays for recycling.

4. Present Your Plan

Present your sorting station plan to the appropriate administration/staff members and educate them about why sorting stations are important for waste reduction. Furthermore, ask individuals like your principal, vice principal, or head custodian for materials to make your plan happen! This can include trash cans, buckets, boxes, and trash bags.

5. Prepare Your Materials

Gather your sorting station supplies. This can include:

  • Paper
  • Writing utensils/Art supplies
  • Tape
  • Glue
  • Trash cans
  • Trash bags
  • Buckets
  • Boxes

Start making your sorting stations! Click here for some examples and here for signs you can print out!

6. Let People Know

Inform and let people know about your sorting project! You can do this by conducting a walking assembly and presenting the provided Lunchtime Sorting Walking Assembly Script to your classmates.

Step 7: Set a Schedule

Use our Lunchtime Sorting Organizer worksheet to set up a schedule for participants to monitor the sorting stations. If you have multiple stations, have a schedule for each station.

Step 8: Sort It Out

Now it’s time to put all your hard work into practice! Set up your lunchtime sorting stations and start your campus sorting.Each group with a sorting station should track their progress with our Lunchtime Sorting Post-Project Audit worksheet. Collect sheets weekly to keep track of your impact.

Step 6: Post-Activity Reflection Questions

Student Reflection and Real World Application Questions

Student Reflection

Once your teams have monitored sorting stations for 2 weeks, use the questions below to have students reflect on their Lunchtime Sorting Campaign.

  • What were some small wins that happened during your project?
    • Examples: got creative, met my lifelong friends, reduced landfill trash
  • What could you do to up your game next time?
    • Examples: have more sorting stations, get more people involved, use stations throughout the whole school day
  • What other ways could you divert trash away from landfills?
    • Examples: trash free lunch, composting, food rescue
  • Which sorting station was used the most?
    • Examples: recycling, stack trays, liquids

Real World Application

What will change in your life now that you have completed this project?

Step 7: Report Students’ Impact

Compile all the data that your teams gathered and complete Lunchtime Sorting Wrap Up Form.

Provided Resources

Congrats on completing the Lunchtime Sorting Eco-Toolkit! 

Did you enjoy this toolkit? Find your next project here