Recycling is an important weapon in the fight to save the environment, but to truly make a difference, we must also reduce waste and preserve finite resources. Here is an easy activity to do with students of any age that will help them think critically and make better environmental choices.

Telling students that recycling and reducing waste is important isn’t enough. Environmentalism in the classroom begins with incorporating hands-on environmental activities that explain how to reduce waste through making conscious decisions about the products we buy in addition to recycling. Before discovering solutions to reduce waste, students must recognize how much excess refuse they are producing. Conducting a waste audit is an effective environmental activity for students to gain a realistic picture of their own waste and will help teachers to spark environmentalism in the classroom (and inspire the next generation of environmentalists).


  • 6 bins to sort waste into the following categories:
    • paper
    • metal
    • glass
    • plastic
    • food
    • landfill (non-recyclable items, i.e., sandwich bags, plastic wrap, disposable razors)
  • trash bags
  • gloves (latex and non-latex)
  • scale to weigh waste types
  • chart paper, tri-fold, etc. to display data

Step 1

Choose a standard school week to begin the waste audit (no holidays, field trips, etc.). Introduce the activity and explain best safety practices to students. Define different types of waste (as outlined above) and identify examples for students. Remember to contact custodial staff to let them know about your project and advise that all bins should be emptied at the end of each school day. Meet with cafeteria staff to let them know that students will be removing their lunch waste from the cafeteria during the week. Place a garbage bag in each of the bins, weigh them, and record their starting weight so that you can easily calculate the weight of the waste produced each day.

Step 2

Remove all garbage cans from your classroom! Ensure that students are depositing waste into the appropriate bins throughout the day. To collect lunch waste, have students bring the food and trash that remains after they eat back to the classroom and sort it into the appropriate bins. Designate one student each day to collect trash items from each classmate upon returning from lunch. To enhance class participation, put students in groups and assign a group to each bin, allowing students to share the duty of sorting trash, depositing items into the appropriate bin, and recording data.

Reducing WasteStep 3

At the end of each day, weigh each bin and record the weight in a spreadsheet. Remember to subtract the weight of the empty bins found in Step 1. Ask students what the most common types of items are in each bin and record these observations. Recycle all possible materials and consolidate the garbage.

Step 4

At the end of the week, tally weights and waste types. Create a display showing all types and total amounts of waste. How do they feel about the amount of waste they produced? What if they considered their waste at home, too? What impact has this project had on their environmental awareness? Promote environmentalism in the classroom and student responsibility for the project by asking students to consider how reducing waste can be accomplished through simple changes (like choosing reusable shopping bags over plastic bags and reusable water bottles over plastic water bottles). Encourage students to suggest initiatives to increase waste awareness, such as sharing audit findings with local officials, creating posters to hang around the school, or starting their own environmentalists club.

Give STEMJobs A Like