Waste minimisation at schools

Minimising waste in schools can be a great way for children and young people to connect with the environment and develop a culture of environmental responsibility.

“Today’s environmentally savvy children are tomorrow’s environmentally responsible adults.”

Marty Hoffart, Co-Founder of Environmental Education for Resource Sustainability Trust*

*Independent source not associated or affiliated with Hamilton City Council


Below you’ll find some pointers on implementing waste education in schools, plus some simple ideas. Remember though, it’s your waste minimisation journey, so make small changes that you are comfortable with, based on where you’re at.

There are also many organisations that provide excellent zero waste education, such as:

Further resources and helpful websites can be found at the bottom of this page.

Hamilton City Council is also continuing to support schools in rolling out waste minimisation education as part of the 2018-2024 Waste Management and Minimisation Plan and the Waste Minimisation Fund. Watch this space!

Getting involved

Getting everyone on board in the beginning will be helpful. You might need parents and trustees supporting and encouraging your efforts; caretakers ensuring recycling and rubbish bins are not contaminated and are ready for collection; and teachers setting lessons and learnings. Having everyone involved from the get-go is a good idea.

Dedicated students and groups

Think about setting up a focus group of enthusiastic students and identify the waste minimisation goals and targets you want set (see below). Students can take turns to be the allocated waste minimisation ‘monitor’ in each classroom, so everyone gets a chance to participate.

Create a vision and set goals

It’s useful to develop a waste minimisation policy or vision to keep everyone on track, such as:

‘Our school commits to reduce waste wherever possible; to reuse all resources; and to recycle everything else. Sending waste to landfill will be our very last resort.’ 

Developing a vision and/or goals is a real opportunity to involve students who can research the topic of waste minimisation and start thinking about what it means to them and what changes they would like to see.

Setting specific commitments or measurable targets are a great way to help achieve this vision. These might be best informed by a school waste audit (see below). Here are some examples of commitments:

  • We will reduce landfill waste by 25 percent within a certain timeframe
  • We will eliminate single-use items (e.g. coffee cups and plastic cutlery) within a certain timeframe
  • We will reuse all scrap paper before recycling it
  • We will start a composting system for all food waste.

Waste audits

A ‘waste audit’ involves looking at and documenting rubbish and recycling. It’s an effective way to see the types and amounts of waste you produce, and what alternatives you can use to reduce this.

To get a good understanding of waste minimisation and the waste hierarchy before getting started, check out the waste minimisation page.

An easy guide to conducting a waste audit can be found on the Plastic Free July website; pages 10 to 13 of the ‘Waste Wise’ Schools Guide; or in this guide from the Greater Wellington Council.

Your school waste audit could include:

  • having students walk through the school and record what items, and how many of each item type, they can see being wasted
  • teachers helping to empty the bins (employing the correct health and safety measures), then laying the materials out into piles to measure and compare the different types of waste
  • presenting the findings to all staff and students involved, linking them to the school vision and goals (or using results to come up with the vision and goals).

This will make what you’re trying to achieve very clear and will encourage everyone to be on board. 

Any change counts. You can do follow-on audits later on too, to find out how you’re doing on your waste minimisation journey and identify more items for reuse and recycling.

Have a plan

Referring to your vision and goals, write a step-by-step plan that will help you get there. The more detailed and creative, the better. Remember to include milestones, too, so that you have something to work towards.

For example, if one of your goals was ’to reuse all scrap paper before recycling it’, you might need the following in your action plan:

  • Take note of the quantity of paper in rubbish and recycling bins from your waste audit, so that you have a baseline for comparison
  • Set up trays or dedicated places for scrap paper to be collected
  • Place reminders on all printers, copiers, paper trays etc., to remind staff and students to use scrap paper first
  • Milestone – 50 percent reduction of clean paper in rubbish and recycling at second waste audit.

If another goal was to start a worm farm, your action plan might be:

  • Research and purchase appropriate food scraps bins and worm farm equipment
  • Find suitable space for the bins and worm farm
  • Determine responsibilities for emptying bins and looking after the worm farm
  • Educate staff and students on appropriate items to put in the bins and worm farm
  • Milestone – getting first ‘worm wees’ out of the worm farm!

Assess and amend

Remember to check-in on your plan, vision and goals. This will help to determine whether what you’re doing is working to minimise waste. Ask everyone who has been involved – students, staff, caretakers, parents – for their opinion and/or ideas for improvement.


This is a really important step. Celebrate successes – no matter how big or small – and be sure to communicate them to everyone involved. This praise will inspire students to keep up the hard work and continue minimising waste.

Simple ideas

  • Encourage litter-less lunches. Ask staff and students to bring package-free lunches or use reusable packaging such as beeswax wraps
  • Make or purchase beeswax wraps (reusable sandwich wraps). They are easy to make – you can even use old (but clean) textile scraps to make them – or there are DIY kits available to purchase online. Search for ‘beeswax wrap recipe’ or ‘beeswax wrap DIY kit’
  • Start a composting system. From worm farms to Bokashi bins, there are lots of different types of composting to suit all needs and time-requirements. The Compost Collective is a great starting-point for information, but you may need to do a little research
  • Print/copy on both sides of the paper and make this the default setting on computers
  • Don’t use disposable coffee cups and cutlery in the canteen or cafeteria. If this is not possible, explore compostable alternatives instead
  • Colour-code recycling bins and ensure they are easily accessible around the school. This will encourage recycling and reduce contamination. Check out the standardised colours and signage here
  • Incorporate ‘reuse’ into all art projects
  • Buy school products in bulk where possible, to reduce packaging
  • Buy school products that are recyclable and are made from recycled materials, where possible.

Funding for waste minimisation projects

Hamilton City Council's Waste Minimisation Fund receives $50,000 a year from the National Waste Levy administered by the Government. This money is allocated each year to groups and organisations in the Hamilton City area that are operating projects achieving and/or promoting waste minimisation.

Find out more about the fund here.

Resources and helpful sites

Below are resources that have helped to inform this page on waste minimisation at schools, and some links to companies and organisations that can help you on your journey.