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Education Trends, Equity Resources, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Podcast Articles   |   Feb 16, 2020

8 simple ways to move toward a zero-waste classroom

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

8 simple ways to move toward a zero-waste classroom

By Angela Watson

Want to shift your mindset and daily practices toward a greener teaching practice?

In this interview with Heidi  Rose, you’ll learn small actionable steps you can take to raise students’ consciousness about their consumption and reduce the amount of trash generated in your classroom.

The term “zero-waste” can seem daunting. And the truth is that there’s really no such thing as zero-waste and the term only exists to remind us that we’re working toward a circular system, not that we should be beating ourselves up about every time trash enters our lives as it inevitably does. –Heidi Rose

Heidi is a first-grade teacher and sustainability educator in Denver, Colorado. I discovered Heidi via her Instagram, @zerowasteclassroom, and I admire the way she works in a relatable, uplifting way to model the shift towards a sustainable relationship to our planet’s resources.

I will give a bit of a disclaimer that this is more of an elementary-focused episode, but frankly, I think we have a bigger problem with waste, plastic, lamination, and so on at the elementary level than at the secondary level where it’s more common to find paperless and nearly paperless classrooms.

I encourage teachers at all grade levels to get in our Truth for Teachers’ podcast discussion community and share ideas and suggest resources around this topic — I’ve got a post set up there so you can view all the comments in one place and collaborate easily.

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Use the podcast player here to listen to our conversation, or read the condensed and adapted transcript of Heidi’s advice below.

Mindset is really the most important word. As we are engaging in this work, there’s really no such thing as zero-waste in this world that we live in. For a lot of history, colonialism and capitalism have been driving us towards this point where we just live in a linear economy and the model that we have for almost everything in the world is take, make, use, dispose. And it’s really, really challenging to work to counter that while you’re undeniably part of it. That’s full of a lot of tensions.

Our end goal is to have a different relationship with the world than we do, even though we’re never ever going to be perfect consumers. That’s an impossible standard.

So it can really help to just look at the small places where you feel like you do have power and you do have the capability to take action.

Know that it doesn’t look the same for anyone. It looks much different for some people depending on their level of access and privilege and free time. That’s a super important thing to keep in mind so that you don’t feel like quitting because you can’t do it perfectly.

1. Do a waste audit in your classroom to see where YOU can make changes

There are so many really quick, easy things that don’t add to your workload almost at all that can really help shift your mindset and your kids’ mindset. So the first step in doing this in your classroom is to do a waste audit.

If you can separate your food waste from everything else, ideally you could start a compost. But even if you can separate two trash cans in your classroom (one for food and one for everything else), you can start to take a look at what kind of trash you’re generating.

2. Change from disposable antibacterial wipes to all-purpose spray and washcloths

A waste audio gives you a really easy starting place to notice something like, “Wow, I’m putting in 15 antibacterial wipes after we clean our tables every other day or every Friday.”

A super-easy switch from that is to just get a giant pack of washcloths. I put that on my supply list. I was lucky enough to have parents buy it, but you could get a pretty cheap pack of washcloths and  use all-purpose spray and washcloths to clean the tables.

Then, those just go in a dirty laundry basket and they’re washed and reused. The ones in my classroom are now being reused in their third year and they show zero signs of wear.

I take them home and wash them. For a while, I had a parent volunteer do it. I just sent out an email whenever my little laundry basket got full, which was only like once a month because I got so many washcloths from the supply list that I just toss them in the laundry basket and it fills up like once a month. And I had a parent volunteer take that home and wash it for a long time. I’m not actually even sure why I stopped. It was really easy.

3. Switch to cloth tissues instead of disposable ones

I am also washing our cloth tissues, which is another easy switch you can make. So I’m kind of combining them so I don’t ask a parent anymore, but it’s really easy to do that.

I went to Goodwill and I got a really big queen size flannel sheet. I used pinking shears–the little zigzag cutting shears–and I cut that up into four by four squares. And then I put all those squares in a bin that says CLEAN and it stands on top of our desk where my paper tissue box would normally stand.

So my kids take a four by four square of flannel and they blow their nose. And then they just toss it underneath the desk in a dirty laundry basket.

I like to wash those because I want to make sure that they are washed hot and dried hot, and usually, I add a tiny bit of bleach in there. And because those are so germy, I don’t want to send them home and not know how they’re being washed. So now I combine the washcloths and cloth tissues, but if you’re just doing the cloth cleaning rags that would be a super easy thing to farm out to a parent depending on your parent population.

4. Re-use the back side of messed up photocopies with “GOOS papers”

Another really quick thing that I started doing that really cuts down on not necessarily the waste but the impact of our classroom is collecting copies that I mess up or extra prints that I make too many of when they’re one-sided.

I have a shelf where I store all of those. And then when I have a one-sided copy, I just put that in the copier, the blank side goes up, and then I copy whatever sheet that I need onto that side.

I tell my kids, ignore the other side. But I just learned from someone on Instagram that they call it GOOS paper, an acronym that means”good on one side.” My kids love that. Every time they get a worksheet or whatever that has something random on the back, they’re like, “Yeah, it’s GOOS paper! We’re using GOOS paper!”

If your printer room is anything like the printer room at my school, there are probably multiple copies strewn about from other teachers. So I just put a little sign in there, taped to the printer that says, “If you have extra copies, put them in this basket,” which I have on the shelf.

And then I get copies from other teachers, too.  I don’t think I’ve had to use new paper for a one-sided copy in years because there’s just so much extra paper. So I would say that this cuts my paper use in half, at least.

5. Mount paper on old cereal boxes for durability instead of laminating

Another area where I noticed there was trash in my trashcan when I did a waste audit was all of the little trimmings from laminating or old resources that I don’t want to use anymore because  I made them my first year of teaching and now I’m in my ninth year. As I’m cleaning out filing cabinets, I’m looking at those resources that I laminated on and thinking how I have something so much better now, but there’s nothing to be done with that laminated paper besides throwing it away.

So I started to think about how I could make paper durable and easy for kids to handle without laminating it. And I started to collect cereal boxes from students’ families — when you have an empty cereal box, send it in.

I teach first grade, by the way. So, stuff still goes in their mouth. They’re still pretty rough on stuff. It’s not like they’re nice and delicate with it. But it doesn’t need lamination.

I’m trying not to laminate things and then put them in the trash one or two years later. Laminating is basically saying:

I need this resource to last not just for this year or next year or as long as I’m a teacher, but forever. I’m comfortable with this being on earth literally forever, because it’s never going to break down or go away.

That’s more durable than we need our resources to be.

II realized I was laminating things that I was hanging on my walls, and it made them shiny with a glare, which made it less accessible for the kids in my room to use as a resource.

You may find that there are a couple of things you still need to laminate, but I think when we start to look critically at that, we can cut down on a lot of plastic use if we’re not laminating things just out of habit.

If you glue paper to cereal boxes and cut out whatever it is, it’s really pretty durable. And you know, the edges might get a little bit wrinkly, but it’s not a big deal. I started doing this in 2017 and I just pulled out a math game for this unit that I’m in and we’re using it in my classroom today.

6. Use refillable glue bottles or sponges instead of glue sticks

I use wet glue, not glue sticks. That’s another area where it’s an easy switch if you can edit your supply list. If you have just your Elmers glue in the little bottles (or you can actually buy a big gallon jug), we refill the little bottles or make glue sponges which are all going to last so much longer than glue sticks.

There is way more glue to the plastic ratio in a glue bottle than in a glue stick. I was always so frustrated with that — I felt like I could glue two things with a glue stick and then it would be thrown away.

Those little kinds of plastic like glue sticks are not recyclable, and I always found that with glue sticks, whatever I’ve glued falls off in like two to three days. It just doesn’t seem to be very durable glue.

So if you’re going to glue stuff onto cardboard (like paper onto cereal boxes), I would use wet glue.

7. If you have autonomy with school supply lists, have parents send in $20 for school supplies at the start of the year for you so you can purchase all the supplies for them and select greener options

Some of the bigger switches that I made were on my school supply list itself. So I’m lucky enough to have a lot of autonomy over my supply list.

Your method may not look the same as mine because I know a lot of people don’t have that choice — their supply lists are set in teams or schoolwide. So I’m saying all of this with the caveat that if you can’t change your school supply list, there’s still a lot of other things that you can do.

But I stopped asking for supplies and just said to write our school a check for $20, which is probably less than parents spend on a whole list of supplies anyway.

Then using that pot of money, I purchase folders, notebooks, and whatever else I need that year. And I discovered that every kid doesn’t need a new set of crayons every single year. Every kid does not need to bring in a new set of scissors. We don’t even need colored pencils and markers every single year. That’s some of the debris that’s just getting tossed out over and over again.

So I just keep a lot of the same community supplies going and then use the pot of money to buy the little things that I do need and distribute them to the class.

That’s how I get a gallon of glue to last the entire year ,or this brand of folders that’s unlaminated so they’ll be recyclable at the end of the year, unlike those colored plastic folders that aren’t. I just went through my supply list and tried to find all of the changes that I could make.

8. Buy a set of class dishes to use for parties instead of disposables

I also got a reusable set of dishes for all our classroom parties from IKEA: plates, forks, spoons, and cups. Every time we have a party, I let the parents know not to bring in any utensils or plates or anything because we have all of that.

At this point, our dishes are three years old, and they’ve saved hundreds of disposables from going straight into the trash, not to mention all of the paper from the trees for the paper plates, and the lessening demand for the oil for plastic utensils and that sort of thing. So this was a major win for my classroom.

In terms of washing them, I usually ask for a parent volunteer, or if there’s time after a party, I love to have the kids wash them.

There were definitely kids who I discovered had never washed a dish in their life, which I think is just a really beautiful opportunity outside of the environmental impact — it’s such a good life skill moment.

My kids wash their plates and utensils, and then put them next to the sink in a little drying rack. I can also ask for a parent volunteer with a dishwasher to take them home so they’re sanitized.

How to teach kids to be mindful of waste they produce

Kids are naturally so engaged with this topic. From a really young age, I think kids are super focused on justice. They notice what’s fair, and what’s unfair, and it’s very obvious to them that all of the plastic pollution — which is a common thing that they know about and have some background knowledge about — strikes them as being really unfair.

So most of the time, as soon as I start leading us into this topic, they are already on fire about it. It’s really easy to capitalize on that because kids see the world very idealistically, and it’s a really great starting point for them to come into this work.

I start out with a project-based learning unit with a driving question like, “Why does our classroom look a little bit different than you might be used to? Why are we trying to have a zero-waste classroom?”

And then for like three to four weeks, we explore different topics about plastic pollution and resource extraction: Pencils are coming from trees — how are we going to treat our pencil? What kind of snacks can we bring in that aren’t in a new Ziploc bag every day?

So we start with a place that’s really close to their lives. And then kind of do some research around that.

The next thing that I’m always thinking about when I’m engaging kids with this is that modeling is by far our most powerful teaching tool. When we’re sharing a new mindset and a relationship to the world with our kids, I have it built into my classroom routine in tiny little ways where I’m saying stuff like: “Oh, I noticed I haven’t written on the back of this anchor chart. I’m going to flip it over so that I can say thank you to the tree that became this anchor chart by using it all the way up.”

I just kind of toss a little narration out like that, and I think this is far more important than any of the tips that I just talked about or the amount trash that’s coming out of my classroom and heading to the landfill.

The relationship that I’m modeling is what’s going to have the biggest impact and what’s going to stick with the kids more than one little tip or trick that you teach them for saving a resource.

I think what I want people to remember is that you, as an individual, are so much more powerful and capable than you know, or probably think. Zero-waste is not an ideal … perfection is not the end goal. No one is ever going to be putting zero trash in their trashcan, probably in our lifetime.

But a different relationship to the world around us is the goal. And you can work towards that goal with even small, tiny, really manageable steps. And you can share a different way of being with the kids in your life, which is, I think, the most potent kind of activism that we can possibly engage in.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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