A few years ago, a waste study in Minnesota found that every day, schools were throwing away about half a pound of trash per student. Even for a small school of 100 students, that adds up to more than 9 tons of stuff each year that’s heading straight for the landfill. The crazy part? They discovered that 78% of that “trash” could have been composted or recycled.
“Well,” you’re probably thinking, “we’re no flatlanders. In Vermont, we’ve been recycling forever! We’re community-minded and enviro-woke and totally conscious of the impact we have on our land. There’s no way that our kids’ schools are wasting resources like that. Right?”
Maybe. But then again, maybe not. We have a saying here at CSWD: You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Until we take a good hard look at our own waste, we’re like a group of ostriches face-down in the desert.
How do we get our heads out of the sand? A good place to start is to do a “Trash on the Lawn Day” (also known as a waste sort or trash audit). Schools around Chittenden County have been doing them for years with the help of CSWD’s School Outreach Coordinator, affectionately known to students as “Recycle Rhonda.”
What is it, exactly?
A Trash on the Lawn Day (TOLD) is a one-day event where you can measure your school’s waste and see the amount of trash, recyclable material, and compostable material that your school has generated in a specific period.
During the audit, trash bags are pulled from classrooms, offices, kitchens and cafeterias and ripped open. The contents are sorted into three categories:
- Recyclables—Items that could have been recycled
- Food scraps & compostables—Items that could have been composted
- True trash—Stuff that actually belonged in the trash can
See a TOLD in action at the Sustainability Academy!
The team weighs and measures each material, and they use their measurements to compare their performance to previous years. If it’s your school’s first year doing a TOLD, the measurements establish a baseline to peg future waste sorts against. While we are always hoping to see an improvement, the exercise is also a valuable opportunity to identify problem areas or materials, and educate their fellow classmates about proper disposal & recycling.
What kind of results can we expect?
That all depends on what kind of changes your school is able to make, and how committed you are. Good news: If this is your first TOLD, you’re virtually guaranteed to improve, even with minor changes. But the TOLD is just a snapshot. It gives you a better idea of where you are, and makes it easier to set goals about where you want to go. TOLDs are just a measurement tool. What really matters is what you do in between measurements.
Take Milton Elementary School, for example. Since they started conducting TOLDs three years ago, they have made huge progress in their waste management. In 2017, MES students:
- Produced 36% less trash
- Put 33% less food scraps and paper towels in the trash
- Put 47% less recycling in the trash
The first year of hosting a TOLD gives schools a snapshot assessment of the waste the school is producing and where that waste is going. It also shows areas for improvement and opportunity. For example, food scrap collection may be needed in classrooms, or commonly used recyclables may be finding their way to the trash. It isn’t until these problem areas are identified through a TOLD that you can begin making the right improvements. Then, continuing to host these trash audits year after year provides the opportunity to see firsthand how your efforts have paid off, and also areas that still may need some attention.
This day is also a great way to bring the school community together for a positive experience, learning how to take care of each other and our environment. Teachers, students, administrators and maintenance staff can all come together as one to make a difference in our community.
We’re ready to get started!
Perfect timing! We conduct waste sorts in the spring, so we’re starting to book dates on our School Outreach Calendar now.
For help setting up a TOLD at your school, get in touch with School Outreach Coordinator Rhonda Mace: