Recently, I attended a zero waste meetup group and four of the people present were classroom teachers! Wow, what a cool bunch of folks. 😉

I’ve been hearing more about how to reduce waste in classrooms, and this post has been on my to-write list for too long.

Zero waste is personal for everyone, and schools across the nation do not often operate in similar ways. I can only speak from my own experience on how I reduce waste in my classroom.

Side note: the cafeteria waste is a whole other beast needing to be fought in a political way. Any advice in that area would be much appreciated!

We compost!

Yellow on yellow! Our school was built in 1976. 🙂

I’ve stated many times on this blog how my school benefits from a fresh fruit and vegetable grant where a fruit or vegetable arrives to each classroom Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday each week throughout the school year. Sometimes the students love the item, sometimes they don’t. I’ve taught them about how compost turns into healthy soil to grow more plants, and they love putting peels, rinds, or even their partially eaten food into a large pickle jar. Sometimes the food comes package-free, sometimes it comes overly packaged. I’ve tried to find out where this grant comes from, but to no avail so far.

I take the compost jar home once it is full and add it to my own compost heap, rinse out the jar, and return it to school. It’s basically zero effort. I could easily say this was too much of an effort for me to explain to students and have the jar ready, etcetera, but knowing what I know about how much methane is created by vegetation in landfills and how it takes somewhere around 30 – 40 years for a head of romaine lettuce to break down in a landfill, there is no way I’m not going to compost whenever I can. Are there students who forget and end up putting their items in the trash can? Yes! Do I dig it out? Only sometimes and usually when there is nothing else in our trash.

We clean!

Old towels from home + vinegar / water in spray bottle on left + tea tree oil / water solution in bottle on right + microfiber towels banished from my household and exiled to the classroom.

My classroom has two sinks, and we use them to wash our hands, get a drink, wash dishes, clean up paint, and clean up our classroom. I keep some microfiber** towels in a cupboard and pull those out whenever we need to wipe down tables. The students help sometimes, but if it’s a sticky job, I’ll generally do it myself. We also have a bottle of vinegar & water solution for those sticky jobs. The students hate the smell of it, but it honestly disappears quickly, and then they don’t complain.

I also keep some rolled up towels behind the sinks so students can wipe their hands when done washing, and also to soak up some of the water because my students make a big mess when washing their hands.

**I despise the feeling of microfiber and it’s a lie that it’s more absorbent. It actually pushes water around so much. I would never buy them again. I use small flannel rectangles at home that were made by my mom and work amazingly well for so many jobs.

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I use Sal Suds as an all-purpose cleaner because it’s highly concentrated. A few drops of this for dish soap and my older brush head work perfectly.

When I wash dishes, I let them dry on a towel, or I use a hand towel that I also keep in a cupboard if I need to immediately use them again.

We eat!

Mexican pastries from a local panadería for an achievement party!

I think I’m even more of a controlling person since becoming more mindful of waste. I don’t really care, though. It’s my classroom, so I choose how to run it. I cannot ask parents to provide package-free treats, so I generally only have a few parties a year and I like to provide the food and prepare it. It’s also more fun this way rather than having food being brought to the students without them seeing real food prepared in real ways.

Air popped popcorn!

Oh, boy, do we love to eat! We have had a few really fun parties this year, and I love being in charge and making them as zero waste as possible. I feel I have been very successful in my endeavors. Yay me! This does require some amount of planning, as all parties do, and it also requires some supplies, as all parties do.

The difference is my supplies are reusable. We have butter knives for cutting up vegetables, spoons, forks, bowls, and plates for eating, and cups and mugs for drinking.

My reusable classroom kit. I have avoided so much waste with this small amount of dishes.

We had a Thanksgiving feast, a Christmas celebration, a Valentine party, and an achievement party this year. All involved food, and all were mostly zero waste. We use napkins that I have been hoarding, and those have been going in the trash. I think I need to remember those can also go into the compost jar.

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Reusable mats, homemade frosting with natural dyes, homemade sugar cookies, and bulk candy for decorating.
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Thanksgiving feast where they helped cut the veggies. I cooked the beans and prepared the chestnuts before the party.
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Bulk candy from WinCo!

Sometimes it’s nice to treat kids to sugary treats. WinCo is a blessing when it comes to bulk treats for students. We were doing an edible butterfly life cycle after raising caterpillars, and WinCo had all the right things for the life cycle. The mini M&Ms are just for small rewards for good behavior, also kept in a handy pickle jar.

We draw / color / highlight / paint!

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Painted butterflies for our butterfly unit!

When we paint, I lay down tablecloths that are easily washed off, set out cups of water, paintbrushes, cut-to-size kraft paper, and tempera cakes that act as watercolors. They last a really long time, and are kid-friendly. I couldn’t tell you where these are from because I found them in a classroom of a retired teacher and just took as many supplies as I thought I could use.

Colored pencils are not so wasteful. I keep a box of those in my classroom and don’t ask for new ones at the start of the year. We also have an extravagant amount of crayons in my classroom with new ones added every year and I don’t know what to do with them, but I tell the kids that even broken crayons work just as well as brand new ones (even though I know new supplies to start Kindergarten seems so fun).

These highlighters work great for little hands.

Somehow I still have so many plastic highlighter markers in my room, but I know one day they will run out, and I have a few of these pencils to last the kids quite a while. They are a nice color and the best part is knowing exactly when these will not work: when they can no longer be sharpened!

Ecosmart markers with refillable ink and replaceable tips. They must know Kindergartners!

One of my very first posts was about these markers. They are not made in the USA, but I felt like they would reduce so much waste in my classroom. However, the truth is we haven’t even used them. I use one for my own writing on the board, but there were still so many other dry erase markers in my room, we are just now getting to the end of them. I sent out a letter letting parents know the only thing their child would need is 2 folders, but so many didn’t like that idea and brought in bags and bags of supplies that were totally unnecessary. This leads me to the next topic of recycling.

We collect our markers for recycling!

It’s been here less than a month and is quite full already!

I very recently discovered that Crayola has a marker recycling program! I am excited about this because markers are one of the biggest wastes in classrooms I believe.

Find out more here.

We also have a blue recycling bin in the classroom and I insisted on having only 1 trash can because all classrooms come with 2 for some reason. I discussed with the kids which items belong in which bin, and they love following those directions and asking if their snack packages can go in the blue bin.

We pick up trash!

This is a great fair weather activity!

Our school grounds are vast and we could probably pick up an entire plastic shopping bag’s worth of trash every day. It’s heartbreaking and I have found really inappropriate items on the playground multiple times. However, the positive side of this is there are teachable moments of not throwing litter on the ground, and being respectful of the earth and all the living creatures.

We wear chongos / ponytails!

I found some really beautiful chongos this year!

Ok, I know this seems sketchy and weird, but these are really convenient for when kids have lice and need to wear a ponytail or when they need something to fidget with during an assembly. All of these were found at school, and are washed. I don’t think it’s gross to use these. It’s like how Jerry Seinfeld has a bit about how we love our hair and take great care of it but once one of those hairs leaves our head it’s panic mode when we find it anywhere else.

The reason these are on my walkie-talkie is because anytime I leave my classroom, I take my walkie-talkie in case of emergency. Needing a chongo could be an emergency also, so they go together. These honestly saved two of my boys during an assembly because they needed something to play with that whole time or else would have physically been unable to control themselves and therefore would make poor choices.

We (unfortunately) get lice!

Yes, so in a close setting, kids are bound to get lice. This is my third year teaching and it is the first year anyone has gotten lice. I use the spray bottle of tea tree oil / water to spray the cubbies / stuffed animals / couch / rugs whenever someone tells me they have lice. I read studies about tea tree oil’s effectiveness against lice and it’s something like 98%. I was quite miffed when another teacher dismissed my usage of tea tree oil like it was some fake hippie treatment.

Obviously, I don’t use this on the students’ heads because I don’t have parent permission, and only use the spray when the students have left for the day.

We use glue!

I do not have a photo of this, but I have a link to a how-to on the usage of glue.

We have not used much glue this year, and I was trying to use up the HOARDS of glue sticks I have in my classroom rather than using the white glue I have. I think glue sticks dry out much quicker and aren’t really that great for many jobs. That is why I switched to using plastic tupperware with lids and sponges that hold the glue just like in the link. It’s seriously so much better than heaps of white glue everywhere or glue sticks with their poor gluing capabilities.

When I run out of smaller bottles of white glue, I will most likely purchase a large size that will hopefully last a very long time.

We use hand sanitizer (rarely)!

Again, I discourage my parents from sending items like this in as supplies. I tell my students to wash their hands if they think they are dirty rather than using hand sanitizer. However, I did make my own small amount that is in an old sanitizer bottle that I will use on occasion if someone was really sick and went home or if any other questionable health violation happens in my room (I have stories!).

This is the article on essential oil hand sanitizer that I read and then used as a guide to make my own.

We learn!

Items I feel are necessary for learning I try to get as durable as possible. I love using white boards and they are great for learning how to write letters and not having the fear of making mistakes and then erasing paper and tearing holes in the paper. Paper is still an important tool for students to get used to writing on, so we use that as well. To reduce paper waste, I often use plastic page protectors for work that will be used over and over such as a math game or writing their name for the first few months of school.

I have made play-dough for the students because it is also a great tool to use for learning.

The previous two years we did a plant learning unit. This was easy to implement low-waste as we used paper seed packets and compostable pots.

Kindergartners go through erasers as quickly as Halloween candy. We use the My First Ticonderoga pencils that have quite durable erasers, but it’s the second year I’ve had them so the erasers are all gone. My solution is to keep big pink erasers in their table organizers at each table.

We reuse!

Any plastic bags that find their way into my room end up as bags for students when they have forgotten their backpacks, or I take them to the plastic bag drop-off when I get too many.

This is a long post, but I am really passionate about teaching as well as reducing waste and have a lot to share. I have been actively doing this for 1.5 school years so have had some amount of practice. I think a key struggle for me is accepting wasteful situations I know can be avoided; birthday cupcakes in giant plastic containers with plastic rings on top, juice boxes even though I specifically asked for no drinks as a snack, parents bringing unnecessary supplies, etc. I need to realize I cannot control others’ actions and to be grateful for times like when a parent brought in bananas and apples in her own bowl as the snack for the day! She gets it! She didn’t even question my compost jar!

Schools in general have a long journey ahead to be less wasteful. We can look back on the wisdom of the past while also understanding and meeting the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s children. The irony of the wastefulness of schools is thick and ugly.

These are all small changes I have made that, I think, have added up to a great reduction in waste. I hope to continue to make more changes and maybe even inspire others. Feel free to ask any questions or even question my tactics.

Peace and love,

Kristan

2 thoughts on “Zero Waste in the Classroom

  1. I really enjoyed reading about all of the different (and relatively easy) things that you do to make your classroom zero-waste. As opposed to simply teaching a concept “to care for the environment,” this is teaching it in a very sustainable and hands on way. Love it and applaud you! I look forward to trying out some of your practices that I either didn’t know about or didn’t think about. Great content!

    Liked by 1 person

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