Defeat the trash monster by conducting a Waste Audit!

As overconsumption continues to trend across the world, having the ability to track and dispose waste safely becomes increasingly difficult. Break this trend by conducting a Waste Audit at your school and divert waste from your local waste facility! Do you want to live in a world filled with trash?! Yuck!

Toolkit Details

NGSS

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 reused, recycled, composted, donated, or not even used in the first place. We are running out of space to put waste in our landfills, which is one reason it’s important to reduce the amount we produce.

What You Will Accomplish

Students will take action by sorting through waste which will enable their peers to understand what can be recycled, composted, or replaced with a reusable item.

Teacher Project Plan Step-by-Step

Step 1: Determine Participants

Use our Waste Audit Sign-Up Sheet Template to gain participants. Here are some ideas of where you can find some:

  • 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

Analysis

Project Management

  • Give predictions on how much waste students can divert from landfills (EX. bags of trash, weight, trash cans, etc.)
  • Students will identify routines to accomplish their goal
    • Examples
      • Create a Waste Audit schedule (see Waste Audit Organizer worksheet provided)
  • Students will practice leadership skills by delegating tasks to each other

Evaluation and Assessment

Step 3: Educate Students on the the Effects of their Waste

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

Education Materials: Why Should Audit Your Waste?

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]

Wasted Food is Harmful to the Environment!

Food is the single largest category of waste put in landfills, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. When food waste rots in a landfill it releases harmful greenhouse gasses that trap the sun’s heat in our atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Food in landfills emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States. [2]

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! [3]

Watch these two short videos to learn why it’s important to reduce waste!

Why Waste is a Social Justice Issue

Waste is an environmental justice issue due to the inequities that exist between different communities. Wealthy neighborhoods are often given more resources to manage waste, such as street sweeping, more trash/recycle bins throughout the community that are picked up regularly, while communities with residents of lower incomes are frequently not offered the same services which results in more waste left behind. 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

  • How many of you already recycle at home?
  • How many of you reuse items to avoid waste?
  • Describe a time where you saw waste being mismanaged.
  • Why do you think reducing waste is important?

Educator Observation

  • What answers did you hear from the reflection questions?

Step 5: Take Action – Waste Audit Lesson Plan

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

1. Assign Roles

In groups of 3-5, decide who will take on the following roles:

  • Student Lead: Helps pick the location of the audit and work with custodial staff to gather waste 
  • Notetaker: At least 1 student records information on the audit worksheet
  • Sorters: At least 3 sorters will sort the items

2. Get Permission

Before conducting the Waste Audit, ensure that you have proper permissions to do so. Ask administration or custodial staff if you can audit your school’s waste.

3. Gain Participants, Be Safe

4. Gather Your Materials

Gather your Waste Audit collection supplies and choose an accessible location where they can be stored.
Materials:

  • Writing Utensil
  • Gloves
  • Waste Audit Tracker
  • Waste Sorting Receptacles (cardboard boxes, buckets, etc.)
  • Tarp (optional)

5. Find a Location

Now that you have the proper permissions and materials, find a suitable location to conduct your Waste Audit. This can be anywhere with a large open space and flat ground. Here are some examples:

  • Grass field
  • Blacktop
  • Playground
  • Empty parking lot

Reach out to your local waste hauler to see what items they accept for recycling and for organics.

6. Determine a Day and Make a Schedule

The last step in planning your Waste Audit is determining the day to do so. This can be done at any time you see best fit including lunch time, free periods, or after school. If you plan to conduct multiple audits, use the Waste Audit Organizer to make a daily, weekly, or monthly schedule.

7. Audit Your Waste

Now that you have everything prepared, it’s time to audit your waste! Follow these simple steps to audit your waste properly:

1. Set up Your Materials

  • If you are using a tarp, lay it down flat on the ground and secure it with tape, stakes, or a heavy item like rocks
  • Ask custodial staff for a trash bag from your cafeteria that will be audited by your group.
  • Label your waste collection receptacles with the following categories
    • Recycled:
      • These are single material items that are clean and dry. This can include plastic bottles, glass jars/bottles, metal cans, paper, magazines, newspapers, cardboard, etc. Ensure that all drinking bottles still have their lids or they will be sent to the landfill.
    • Trash:
      • Any items that have multiple materials (plastic, metal, paper, etc. in combination) need to be sent to the landfill. This can include chip bags, candy bags, tape, etc. If any recyclable items are dirty, oily, or wet, they must be sent to the landfill because they are contaminated. This can include milk cartons, lunch trays, yogurt cups, etc.
    • Compostable:
      • These are food scraps that can be sent to be composted to make soil. This can include fruits, vegetables, grains, etc. If you would like to put these items to use, check out our Composting at School Toolkit.
    • Other:
      • Items labeled as other are unique because they require special pick up for processing. This can include containers with poisonous contents, hazardous waste, and E-Waste.

2. Assume Your Roles

Getting in your previously assigned role, for each trash bag, the Sorter students will sort through the trash and place them in their respective receptacles. The Notetaker student will stand nearby and tally the amount of items placed in each receptacle using the Waste Audit Tracker. One worksheet should be used for each trash bag.

3. Sort Your Waste

Lay out all of the trash on the ground/tarp and begin sorting them in the waste receptacles. Make sure to keep track of how much is being placed in each receptacle using the Waste Audit Tracker. If possible, weigh each receptacle and note that as well. One worksheet should be used for each trash bag.

4. Dispose of Your Materials Safely

After auditing your waste, create a plan on how to dispose of it safely. Waste should be disposed of based on the category you gave them. This will ensure that items are disposed of safely and correctly.

You never know what strange and unexpected items a Waste Audit will uncover. Keep a “treasures” list and read the list periodically. Being a waste-buster has a fun side!

8. Share Your Findings

After you conduct your Waste Audit, it is time to share what you found! Using the results from the Waste Audit Tracker, educate other students on how much waste your school can divert by disposing your waste correctly. Here are a few ideas on how you can share your results:

  • Create a presentation or video to share or broadcast in your school announcements.
  • Deliver your presentation class to class in a  walking assembly.
  • Have a tabling event at a school function to educate your community.

9. Audit Your Waste

If you want to take it a step further, share your results with your school administrators so they can help your team create a solution to dispose of the schools’ waste correctly. Need ideas on how to do so? Check out our other toolkits:

Step 6: Post-Activity Reflection Questions

Student Reflection and Real World Application Questions

Student Reflection

Once your teams have participated in the activity for 2 weeks, use the questions below to have students reflect on their Waste Audit.

  • 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: cleaned recyclable items, get more people involved, audit our waste more often
  • What other ways could you divert trash away from landfills?
    • Examples: trash free lunch, composting, food rescue

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 the Waste Audit Wrap Up Form.

Provided Resources

Congrats on completing the Waste Audit Eco-Toolkit! 

Did you enjoy this toolkit? Find your next project here

Notes:

This toolkit and its resources were inspired by the LBUSD Think Green Program.