Recycling is a big part of every school’s facilities management program – and getting bigger. Recent research from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that Americans have increased the amount of waste they recycle from less than 7 percent in 1960 to 32 percent today1.

Add the increased interest in sustainability from students at every level, and a robust recycling program is no longer a nice-to-have option, but a baseline expectation of parents and your community.

By the way, recycling isn’t just about long-term sustainability. The EPA also estimates that recycling and reuse activities in the United States account for 681,000 jobs and $37.8 billion in wages.

The best news? School waste is up to 80 percent recyclable, which means educational institutions can show meaningful, measurable results with the right program. The first step to starting or upgrading an in-school recycling program is partnering with your facilities management team.

Assess your recycling opportunities

Most school waste falls into the following, broad categories:

  • Recyclable paper products
  • Discarded food and other compostable products
  • Plastics, metal, and glass

With these categories in mind, ask your facilities services partner to conduct a waste audit. The audit looks at an average day’s waste in your school, giving a real-time view of what is thrown out, what’s recycled, and how that ratio can be improved.

A waste audit can even involve students, giving them a first-hand look at how even small, everyday actions can impact the environment. Most importantly, it allows you to set measurable recycling goals for your school.

Here are the basic steps of a waste audit:

  1. Collect trash from classrooms, outdoor spaces, offices, and washrooms.
  2. Sort waste by type, based on the categories above.
  3. Put the sorted waste into bags and weigh each category.
  4. Don’t forget the cafeteria. Look at food waste for the day and weigh or otherwise measure the amount thrown out (how many garbage bags, for instance).
  5. Record the amounts for each category by total weight and by percentages.

Set achievable goals

Once the audit is complete, you can start setting goals for your school. These goals can be part of an incremental program over time – that is, first food waste, then paper, then plastics, and so on – or a comprehensive program to reduce overall waste by a certain percentage.

Here’s where an experienced facilities management provider comes in. Ask your facilities team to help you set realistic, achievable recycling goals. This is one of their areas of expertise.

Your custodial provider, for example, knows better than anyone what’s going into your trash cans. Your provider can share insight about the most obvious opportunities to reduce waste – the “low-hanging fruit” – and recommended first steps.

As with any facilities initiative, it’s helpful to choose a staff member or administrator to work with the supervisor of your onsite custodial team. This single point of contact keeps communication flowing – one of the most important aspects of any new program.

Put your plan into action

A few simple actions can make all the difference in your school. Some of the easiest ways to take your school’s sustainability efforts to the next level include the following.

Recyclable paper products

  • Place paper recycling bins in offices, classrooms, and other common areas.
  • Make colorful signs or labels for the bins, so students (and staff!) know exactly what to put in.
  • Ask your facilities management provider to share information about how the recycling process works after paper products leave your school.
  • Educate your kids. Whether through assemblies, morning announcements, or classroom lessons, let students know about your recycling program, how it works, and why it’s important.

Food waste

  • A composting program is a great way to reduce food waste.
  • Get your landscaping team involved by recycling grass clippings as well.
  • Composting programs are a great way to support community gardens or farms in your area.
  • If you have an appropriate space, consider starting a school garden to show students the direct benefits of your food recycling plan.
  • Ask your facilities provider about compostable utensils or food containers for the school cafeteria. An experienced provider can advise on costs and benefits of compostable food service items.

Plastics, metal, and glass

  • Team up with your facilities services partner to create clearly labeled recycling stations for plastic, metal, and glass. These often work together with food waste stations during lunchtime.
  • Your facilities team can also help explain which items are recyclable (like aluminum cans) and which are not (for example, broken light bulbs). This can vary from one recycling center to the next, so it’s important to rely on your team’s expertise for best results.
  • Almost all glass food or drink containers are completely recyclable. Because glass probably makes up a small percentage of your school’s total recyclables, it’s an easy way to “dip your toes” into a recycling program.

Give your new recycling program time to grow

And remember, a new recycling program can take a while to gain momentum. With the right encouragement and resources in place, students and staff will change their habits over time and become dedicated recyclers. Just stay motivated, focus on your school’s goals, and rely on your facilities management team for support.

Recycling resources for school officials

Here are some reliable resources for school administrators or staff who want to learn more about in-school recycling:

Work with the right facilities management team

Want to know more about how the right facilities management partner can help your educational facility optimize your recycling program? Contact us at


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1EPA: Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste, and Recycling