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Creating a Sustainable Classroom: How Teachers Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

April 22, 2024

Creating a Sustainable Classroom: How Teachers Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

Megan Ortmeyer explore how educators have been incorporating reducing, reusing and recycling practices in their classrooms.

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In the pursuit of creating more environmentally conscious learning spaces, teachers around the globe are embracing the principles of reduce, reuse and recycle. This green movement within education not only teaches students about sustainability but also promotes creativity, resourcefulness and a deeper respect for our planet. Let's explore how educators have been incorporating these essential practices into their classrooms.

Saying Goodbye to Lamination

Many teachers are getting creative with ways to cut down the use of plastic in their classrooms, and one simple idea is saying goodbye to lamination. 

Educator @heymissheidi chooses not to laminate any papers that are going up on her walls, and offers the following reasoning why:

Laminated paper can’t be recycled, so eventually it’s heading to the landfill, after being coated in plastic (petroleum)! A huge time and resource saver is to just not laminate things that are going to hang on your walls. Kids aren’t grabbing these, and laminating them makes an awful glare. I have things that have gone up in the fall and down for summer cleaning for years now—use sticky tack to hang and gentle hands to remove, and paper is pretty dang durable!

If you are still looking for a way to make your decorations a little more durable, @greenteachertess offers another alternative to lamination. She collects cereal boxes and other cardboard from students and uses them to back posters and resources. She notes, “Next time you’re about to coat something in plastic, remember it’s set to stick around for hundreds of year! #rethinklamination

bag with cardboard for eco friendly

Recycling Markers/Pens/Highlighters at Staples

As I scrolled Reddit and Instagram on the hunt for ways educators are reducing, reusing and recycling, I came across several posts from teachers sharing how they recycle the markers used in their classrooms. There is a super easy way to recycle pens and markers, and that is through recycling services at Staples, which has been running a recycling program for years, and now has added writing instruments to the program. Staples will accept any brand and writing instrument regardless of where it was purchased. And the best part? Every time you bring in something to recycle, you earn reward points that can go toward purchasing more supplies for your classroom.

Staples shares this graphic as a guide on how to go about recycling at their stores.

Bonus Tip: This can also be a great way to get parents or the PTA involved. If you aren’t up to the task of going to Staples yourself, see if a parent is willing to partner with your class to carry out the recycling.

Using Online Platforms to Post Schoolwork

Many educators are using online platforms as a way to reduce paper waste in the classroom, embracing technology to foster a greener learning environment. By utilizing digital tools and resources, teachers can distribute assignments, handouts and reading materials electronically, eliminating the need for physical copies. This not only saves countless sheets of paper but also enhances students' access to learning materials, which can be updated and shared in real time. Further, these digital platforms facilitate collaboration among students without the need for printed materials, encouraging a more interactive and engaging classroom dynamic. By integrating technology in this way, educators not only contribute to environmental conservation but also equip students with digital literacy skills that are essential in today's tech-driven world.

Educator Correne, known on Instagram as @resourcereyes recommends using Seesaw, while educator MisterPyramid on Reddit utilizes Google Classroom.

Seesaw

Reusing Paper, Notebooks and Other Materials

Reusing the backs of paper copies for scratch paper, drawing, etc., is probably one of the simplest ways to reduce waste in the classroom. Reddit user gravitydefiant is an educator who “send[s] kids to the recycling bin for scrap paper, bookmarks, paper airplanes during indoor recess, etc.” And @greenteachertess collects printing mistakes from those around her school building to reuse in her classroom.

reuse box

MisterPyramid on Reddit suggests going beyond just using the back of copy paper:

Get a decent, heavy-duty cross-cut paper shredder. Implement a scrap paper bin where kids can use scrap paper instead of first reaching for fresh sheets. When paper can’t be reused, have them place it in another bin to be shredded. When the bin gets full, work it into the assignment to create paper mache projects or, with Earth Day approaching, show them how to make homemade paper. Both can be easily done in the home and help spread the movement further.

For pencil shavings, have them set aside to be used for mulch/compost.

At Reddit, user Animalladystuff takes reusing materials to a whole new level with her implementation of repurposing glue sticks and broken crayons in her classroom while also engaging students in a fun class project. You “melt down the broken crayons and fill them into the glue stick container to make a cool push out crayon kind of thing. Could be like a STEM experiment I show the kids and would be a fun supply to use during indoor recess.” Here are two ways to do this craft: Option 1 or Option 2

Using Eco-Friendly Cleaning Materials

Several educators are switching to eco-friendly cleaning products in the classroom instead of using traditional products like Clorox wipes in order to significantly reduce the environmental impact of everyday cleaning routines. These greener alternatives are often free from harsh chemicals, making them safer for students and better for the planet. Plus, they're just as effective at keeping classrooms clean and germ-free, ensuring a healthy learning environment for everyone.

eco-friendly cleaningeco-friendly cleaning supplies

Eco-Friendly Crafting + Sustainable Sensory Choices

Crafting and art activities can be a useful way to engage students in learning and help teach concepts, but let’s face it, these activities aren’t always the most eco-friendly. There are only so many crafts that parents will save and for only so long before they inevitably end up in the bin or, even worse, become a fire hazard in the attic. These educators show how you can swap some of your activities while still engaging students in fun art/craft experiences by using items found in nature to create patterns, use as sensory items, or as fun holiday crafts.

eco-friendly materialseco-friendly art activityloose parts eco-friendly classroom

Class Plant Projects

Many classroom teachers use plant projects to teach students about biology and the environment. However, it's common to see seeds starting out in plastic or Styrofoam cups, which aren't the most eco-friendly choices. A greener alternative is to use biodegradable pots made from materials like peat, paper, or even repurposed items like school milk cartons from the cafeteria with the tops cut off. These sustainable options not only reduce waste but also allow students to learn about responsible environmental practices right from the start of their planting projects.

class plants project eco-friendly

Reducing Food Waste

In the middle school where I worked, steps were being taken to reduce food waste with the incorporation of a share bin, and so I was happy to discover on Reddit that other schools do this too. Reddit user beaverkc explains the share bin:

A school in my town has a share bin. Students who buy lunches may place unwanted and unopened food on this ice tray. If other students are still hungry after they finish their own lunches, they may choose one item from the share bin. This simple process reduces waste and makes tummies full.

Class Waste Audit

Conducting a class waste audit is a fantastic hands-on activity that not only brings science to life but also instills important environmental values in students. By sorting through a day's or a week's worth of classroom trash, students get a real-time snapshot of their waste habits. This eye-opening experience can spark conversations about reducing waste, recycling more effectively, and even starting composting projects. It empowers students to make data-driven decisions about how they can minimize their impact on the planet, starting with their own classroom. Plus, it's an engaging way for them to connect with the principles of sustainability and see the tangible difference they can make through simple everyday actions.

class waste audit

Practicing Recycling and Composting with their Students

Once you have conducted a class waste audit, you can easily springboard into practicing recycling and composting in your classroom. Teaching students about recycling and composting fosters a sense of responsibility and empowerment. They see how their actions can contribute to environmental conservation, reduce landfill waste and promote soil health through composting. These lessons in sustainability can encourage lifelong habits of environmental stewardship, showing students that their choices have a direct impact on the world around them.

rot, recycle, reduce, refusecompost

How do you reduce, reuse and recycle in your classroom? Share in the comments below!

Celebrating Earth Day and Arbor Day

This Earth Day and Arbor Day, use these engaging preK-12 lesson plans, activities and resources to celebrate and teach your students how they can take action in their community to create a healthier planet.

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Megan Ortmeyer
Megan Ortmeyer is an SML Team Member and has worked in the AFT Educational Issues Department since fall 2018. She received her M.A. in education policy studies in May 2020 from the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington... See More
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