Striving for a Zero-Waste School

At P.S. 333 Manhattan School for Children in New York City, science teacher Shakira Provasoli encourages students to place recyclable materials in the recycle bin.

Taking actions to become a zero-waste school can be “a big pain,” says Brian Shmaefsky, professor of biology and environmental science at Lone Star College in Kingwood, Texas. But he adds, “As an environmental scientist, I typically look at waste reduction because of budget concerns…Now [that] we can provide digital [assignments and tests] at school, it has really made a big difference in reducing paper costs. [We’ve seen a] 95% drop in costs.”

While “budget cuts drive zero-waste efforts,” he allows, “a cost-cutting mentality [must eventually be] replaced by a sustainability mentality.”

In labs, says Shmaefsky, zero waste “gets tricky. Traditional labs use a lot of reagents, animal specimens, and disposables.” He advises, “First try to do as much virtually as possible; students get the same effect without chemical and animal waste. With virtual labs, [students] can make an error and not have to start over. [After the virtual lab,] then do an actual lab, and [you’ll] have less mistakes made by students.”

In his school’s chemistry courses, teachers “took a reduction approach [by using] smaller amounts of reagents per class. Or [they substituted] labs [for ones in which] some chemicals are reusable, versus [having] waste disposal. In simple procedures, [you can] reuse reagents,” he relates.

Biology teachers found “a vendor that [sold] simple home kits with reusable, safe materials. Students could buy the kits instead of paying a lab fee,” Shmaefsky contends. “When students are finished with the kits, as the group project, students could clean them up and donate them to schools that didn’t have the materials. [Schools receiving donations] were particularly elementary schools; we gave them instructions to recycle or reuse the kits. Anything that had to be disposed of was environmentally friendly and in small amounts….

“A civic engagement project made our environmental science class very green. We became a recipient of trash; students collected trash and built their own environmental equipment. [For example, instead of throwing soda bottles in the trash,] they made Berlese funnels out of [the] bottles,” Shmaefsky recalls.

At P.S. 333 Manhattan School for Children in New York City, K–5 science teacher Shakira Provasoli serves as sustainability coordinator and has spearheaded zero-waste efforts. Last year, when a kindergarten class discovered their classroom couldn’t achieve zero waste because of the cafeteria food’s packaging, she had the kindergarteners write letters explaining the problem, and sent them to the city’s Department of Education’s Office of Sustainability. When the city’s departments of sanitation and education chose 100 schools to launch a zero-waste pilot program, her school was among them.

“It was the first year my school had a lot of resources and people devoted to zero waste,” says Provasoli. “It was a lot easier to do because I was not the only one to promote sustainability.”

A group of parents found a source of compostable trays to replace plastic foam trays, for example. “A waste disposal service agreed to pick up the composted trays for free if the school weighed [the amount of compost] for a month…We went from 12 bags of garbage collected seven years ago to not even one full bag on the first day,” she reports. “We’re hoping to do this with utensils; we haven’t eliminated plastic utensils yet.”

Provasoli works with TerraCycle (, a program offering free national recycling solutions. “They send us a link for shipping labels for sending [food packaging waste] to them. We accumulate points that can be redeemed for money,” she explains.

“My school has just adopted a zero-waste cafeteria [policy], and also enhanced classroom recycling,” says Lisa Wininger, a science teacher at Plainwell Middle School in Plainwell, Michigan. “In the cafeteria, we took all the trashcans away, and took the dumpsters away; we use recycle bins instead,” she explains. Because her school is in an agricultural community, “we recycle food waste for local pig farming. The students wanted to give food to the pigs. We really cut down on the amount of waste that has to go to a landfill: Food waste is down 90%; non-food waste is down by approximately 75%.”

Wininger says her students are proud of their efforts to recycle and reuse. “It gives them a new sense of pride in themselves and their abilities, knowing they can make a difference in their community to effect change.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Stewards Education Project (CSEP; see, “provided the impetus [for my school] to create a zero-waste plan,” she relates. CSEP provides educators of elementary through university students with professional development, collaborative tools, and support for their zero-waste programs and connects teachers with a mentor.

“My mentor in Washington, D.C., Dale Glass, gives good ideas on [reducing our] carbon footprint,” Wininger observes. CSEP presents free webinars, and “we can network online and give one another suggestions,” she notes.

 “We have a recycling club at our school, so both the students and I are trying to be zero waste,” says Cindy Hopkins, seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Kaffie Middle School in Corpus Christi, Texas. “All of our projects must be done with recycled goods…[I tell students that our] bins should be full every day.”

Teachers “have to plan for zero waste, have forethought. You have to explain it to students ahead of time. It’s a constant thought about what goes into the recycling bin. The teacher has to be careful of what he or she throws out,” Hopkins contends.
The benefit for students is “if we can do it here, you can do it in your home. It becomes a habit they can do at home,” she asserts.
She adds that Communities In Schools of the Coastal Bend, a local nonprofit dropout prevention agency, “holds a recycling contest, and I require all students to participate. They learn so much when they do…This year, we’re creating a poster, and one poster from the city will [be chosen to appear] on city dump trucks.”

Rebecca Newburn, science and math teacher at Hall Middle School in Larkspur, California, has created a Zero Waste Challenge in which students analyze where they create waste in their lives, then devise a plan and implement it to reduce their waste. Her website for the challenge ( has suggestions and resources for becoming a zero-waste school or home.

Newburn also was a pilot teacher of KQED Learning’s Engineering for Good, a three-week, project-based learning unit for middle school science classrooms that focuses on developing solutions to the negative environmental impact of plastics. In the unit, which supports Next Generation Science Standards, students use the engineering design process to define a problem, brainstorm solutions, develop prototypes, and iterate on their designs. As a final project, students produce videos about their solutions. Access the unit at

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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About Debra Shapiro

Associate Editor of NSTA Reports
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1 Response to Striving for a Zero-Waste School

  1. Olivia Ries says:

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