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Restarting Cafeteria Recycling and Composting


The Center for Green Schools recently hosted a webinar focusing on best practices and strategies for restarting school cafeteria recycling and composting programs halted by COVID-related disruptions. Panelists discussed common barriers to restarting cafeteria waste sorting, successful strategies for overcoming them, and helpful resources for engaging students and staff. Keep reading to learn some of the advice offered during the event.

Setting the Stage 

The spring is a perfect time to begin the planning process for restarting cafeteria recycling and/or composting for next school year. You can begin determining what your priorities are when it comes to waste sorting and how you might achieve certain goals. To help in this, consider building some context by conducting a waste audit, needs assessment, or policy review. If you find, for example, that you have large amounts of recyclables going into the trash, you could prioritize rolling out a robust cafeteria recycling program first and then move on to other areas of waste reduction. Starting small can often yield more sustainable results than trying to implement too many changes too quickly.

Students learn about the essentials of waste sorting in "The Journey of Waste" lesson

Educate Students and Staff

One strategy for ensuring the success of your cafeteria waste sorting system is to educate students and staff before they even get to the recycling bin. This can look like an all-school recycling assembly, morning announcements, a field trip tour of a recycling facility, or other fun activities. It is also helpful to engage students up-front by appointing some students to monitor the recycling bins at lunch. Many students, particularly in high school, are more likely to listen to their peers than teachers or other adults. Therefore, utilizing a Green Team or other student champions as sort table monitors is a great way to encourage them to be a voice in the school and foster a culture of sustainability among the student body.

A group of students tour the West Vancouver Materials Recovery Center

Simplify the Message

It is also important to provide straightforward messaging that makes it easy for students to correctly use the waste sorting system. Recycling is an inherently complex subject, so it is essential that messaging simply conveys which bins students should use for waste. For example, use signs that focus on what goes in the bin (e.g. food scraps, milk cartons, etc.) rather than asking if something is recyclable, since there are many items that are technically recyclable, but not via Clark County's commercial recycling system. If you have questions about how to recycle something in Clark County, look it up in the Recycling A-Z directory.

Signage should be simple and focus on what items go in each bin

Engage Cafeteria Staff

Custodians and food service staff are key stakeholders to engage when implementing a new recycling or composting system in your cafeteria. They will be on the ground every day managing the flow of resources through the cafeteria, so providing them with standardized, up-front training on the new system can be hugely beneficial. It is important to stay in tune with their needs throughout this process as well since it requires altering several of their day-to-day responsibilities. Many custodians, for example, have enjoyed the introduction of a liquids bucket and strainer to cut down on spills, as well as compost bin liners to minimize how often the cart needs to be cleaned out. Be sure to offer them adequate resources and provide tools to help answer questions. Clark County Green Schools can supply materials like liquids buckets, strainers, bag liners, and more for free. Check out our offerings and contact us if you are interested in bringing any of these items into your cafeteria. 

Give Yourself Grace 

Finally, remind yourself to not let perfect be the enemy of good. It can take years for a school to establish a cafeteria waste reduction system that runs smoothly and accounts for all recyclable and compostable materials. Celebrate the wins as they come, and don't hesitate to reach out to Clark County Green Schools for help! We can offer education, materials, and a host of other resources to support you throughout this process.

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