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An Educator’s Guide to Small Ways of Teaching Waste Reduction


Americans produce more than 200 tons of garbage every year. While 70 percent of this garbage is recyclable, only 30 percent is recycled. This means that the existing waste-management efforts are not making a significant impact on waste reduction.

With the world grappling with increased waste production, it’s essential to find ways of mitigating the issue before it overruns our systems. One way is through incorporating waste-reduction lessons in schools. Ideally, educators can play an essential role in cultivating environmentally conscious behavior in students, allowing them to grow into mindful and responsible adults.

Read on to learn how educators can teach kids about waste reduction.

Proper Throwing Away and Segregation of Garbage

Kids need to understand proper waste disposal and segregation methods, as well as the different types of garbage, such as plastic, metal, e-waste, glass, paper/cardboard, and organic waste. Waste drop-off spots and bins within the school should be clearly marked to allow them to know where to dispose of waste.

It’s also vital to teach them the importance of separating waste. This involves having two bags or bins for dry and wet waste. Recycling waste is easier when it’s segregated at the source.

Incorporate into Lessons

Hands-on lessons are educational and fun, allowing educators to illustrate complex ideas for kids to understand. You can encourage kids to participate in projects that focus on the three Rs of waste management (reduce, reuse, and recycle). Learning activities, such as color match and Guess the Word, offer fun ways to learn something new.

Another way is to dedicate a few lessons to community activities and other service-learning projects that involve cleaning, recycling, and composting. Home and journal-writing assignments on waste reduction are also effective.

Teach Basic Terms Regarding Recycling

Recycling can reduce by over 50 percent the waste that ends up in landfills. For kids to understand how recycling works, they need to know the basic terms of recycling, such as the following:

  • Recyclables - this is waste that can be collected, processed, and used as materials in manufacturing other products.
  • Recycled-content product - this is a product made from recycled materials collected during the manufacturing process.
  • Postconsumer product - this refers to a product that’s made from recyclables collected from consumers and businesses.

It’s best to create classroom posters for such terms to encourage discussion around recycling. Remember, students themselves should create such posters.

Educate Students about the Most Common Trash That Pollutes the Environment

You also need to educate them about the typical kinds of waste that lead to environmental pollution. Waste that pollutes the environment is mostly nonbiodegradable, including plastics, polystyrene, metals, toxic chemicals, aluminum cans, paints, and tires, among others.

These wastes kill plants and animals, poison soils and waterways, and they can also be hazardous to humans. Students need to know the proper collection and disposal methods of such waste.

Practice Simple Recycling Practices inside the Classroom

Setting up a recycling system in the classroom provides kids with hands-on experience in recycling. For example, let them decorate cardboard boxes, which they can use as sorting bins. They should label them depending on the trash that goes into the box, such as metal cans, paper, and plastic.

Recycling in the classroom can be a daily activity. For example, students can turn wastepaper into anchor charts. Some schools even have programs for recycling the wastepaper they produce, though this is somewhat involved in a classroom environment.

Initiate a Simple Recycling Contest to Make Students Aware of Some Things with Multiple Uses

Recycling contests help kids to master different types of recyclables and what products they can create. To run a contest, divide the class into several teams, and let them compete in recycling waste. You can use a reward or point system to motivate them. The team that recycles the most waste by the end of the week or month can earn a reward or the highest score.

Educators can also create opportunities for classes to compete during environmental programs. For example, you can develop an idea like “Green Challenge Week” to see the class that produces the least waste.

Organize Green Clubs

Starting a green club at school helps in creating environmental awareness and in undertaking different community projects. When starting a club, be sure to set a clear goal or cause. This helps to give the club a purpose and ensures students stay focused.

You can encourage your students to recruit school and community members into the club. Let them use online resources, such as newsletters, survey tools, and social media, to share and find information. As a club, they can engage in different projects, such as recycling, setting up a school recycling center, cleaning, and tree planting.

Display Visuals around the Classroom about Recycling

Besides educational materials, you can also hand wall posters and other visuals on recycling around the classroom. Such visuals help to inspire students and act as a reminder of their role in protecting the environment.

Posters help to emphasize the importance of recycling, environmental protection, and waste reduction through facts and sayings.

Explain What Can and Can’t Be Recycled

As an educator, you also need to help students understand the difference between nonrecyclable and recyclable waste. This helps to prevent confusion while taking part in recycling initiatives. Common examples of recyclable waste include paper, glass, metal, and plastic.

Remember that some types of paper and glass are not recyclable, such as wrapping paper, light bulbs, mirrors, and thermal fax paper. Students need to know the difference between these materials. Be sure to create wall charts that put this waste into categories for easy understanding.

What Can Be Donated Instead of Thrown Away

Remind students that donation is an ideal way of preventing unnecessary waste that ends up in landfills. In some cases, people throw away reusable items, such as electronics, appliances, and clothes. It’s always advisable to donate items that are still in good shape.

Donating feels good because someone else can benefit from your old stuff. Attending gadgets or clothing drives at schools, churches, or your neighborhood is also a great way of disposing of unused items.

Simple Innovation Contest + Point System

Environmental contests and competitions are available for students of all ages, and these come in different styles and structures. A great example is innovation contests, which allow students to research simple to complex topics and come up with innovative designs, plans, or technologies for addressing different problems.

Yearlong, school-wide recycling contents are ideal for ensuring your waste reduction efforts yield the most impact. You can ensure the students’ continued focus on the contest by celebrating environmental days throughout the year, including Earth Day, World Soil Day, World Habitat Day, World Cleanup Day, World Environment Day, and others.

Final Thoughts

Waste reduction is practical and feasible in schools if students are allowed to take part in such efforts. Students need to be educated about different ways of waste reduction and about what they can do to protect the environment.

Encouraging them to engage in waste-free activities and offering environmental project-based learning helps connect students to the natural world. They will start appreciating the things around them and find meaningful ways of recycling or reusing stuff.

Remember, the focus is not just to get them to be environmentally conscious within the school environment. The knowledge and skills they learn should be applicable to real-world scenarios to allow them to be mindful of the environment beyond school.


  • Brandon, J. (2010, September 23). Waste Reduction Week Ideas for Kids. Green Action Centre.
  • Butte Environmental Council. (n.d.). Waste-Free Activity Ideas for Schools.
  • Florida Department of Environmental Protection. (n.d.). Recycling Education Resources for Kids and Teachers.
  • Tornio, S. (2020, April 10). 29 Ideas, Big and Small, to Bring Recycling into the Classroom. WeAreTeachers.
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2020, July 31). Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Resources for Students and Educators. US EPA.
  • Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. (n.d.). A Recycling Activity and Learning Guide for Educators and Children Ages 3–5. Earthbound Environmental Solutions.


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