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What are NYC Schools Doing to Go Zero Waste?

Tens of thousands of people representing many industries and sectors gathered for COP26 in Glasgow this fall 2021 to determine what it would take to accelerate climate action. While discussions and debates take place on global stages, other steps are being taken on a local level, including but not limited to grassroots environmental efforts, sustainability initiatives within institutions, and more. In New York City, we see a demonstrated commitment and interest among many stakeholders to become better stewards to the environment, starting with our schools.

Involving key stakeholders

When people think about key stakeholders in any educational institution, principals and teachers may be the first groups of people to come to mind. While they are important stakeholders, we also find that facilities and food service team members are essential partners in any zero waste effort.

This year, Think Zero collaborated with a school in Manhattan, NYC to engage their facilities and food service teams in a number of waste reduction trainings and help them realize the important role they play in keeping the school compliant with city and state waste regulations. We made a visit to the school to assess the waste infrastructure and understand their challenges and barriers to waste management on campus. After our data collection was collected, we developed tailored content for food services and facilities teams and delivered hands-on trainings and activities with each group. We also answered any questions they had regarding waste and recycling in school and in their everyday life.

Engaging key stakeholders in any setting is crucial to reaching ESG and zero waste goals. We often collaborate with cleaning and facilities teams, cafeteria and food service staff members, and other individuals to help our clients achieve their waste reduction and diversion goals.

Engaging future leaders

Educational institutions understand the importance of engaging future leaders at an early age. In fact, some schools are incorporating Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) education into their course curricula to expand children’s creativity and problem-solving skills, as well as expose them to the diverse careers they could explore as they grow up.

We recently worked with a school in Bronx, NYC who is revamping their course curricula to help students understand their relationship with systems and how these systems help their campus and city run efficiently. In the context of waste management, Think Zero was invited to deliver a presentation to grade school students about waste in NYC and engage them on a hands-on activity: conducting a waste audit! I led a training with grade school students and their teachers and discussed waste at local and national levels, waste’s impact on people and the environment, and the value of conducting a waste audit. We spent a full school day with students, teachers, and administrative staff sorting through the waste generated at the school to understand missed recycling opportunities and identify potential courses of action for waste reduction and diversion (note: all participants wore personal protective equipment during this activity to ensure safety).

Grade school students sorted through classroom waste and found usable items such as unused workbooks in the trash.

This waste audit activity gave students and staff a tangible understanding of the kind of waste produced at various waste generation points on campus, and our waste audit report includes data-driven recommendations based on our findings so they can adjust or optimize their existing operations and processes.

Implementing zero waste programs

In NYC, the NYC Department of Sanitation partnered with the city’s Department of Education and environmental nonprofit organization GrowNYC to launch Zero Waste Schools, a five-year pilot program consisting of 100 schools that worked on best practices for recycling and composting. Since its inception, approximately half of the city’s public school system (that’s about 900 schools serving over 500,000 students!) is participating in this program.

DSNY Waste Characterization Study found that over 50% of waste in NYC schools consisted of organics suitable for composting.

When I was in grade school, we didn’t have zero waste programming in my elementary, middle, or high school. This program introduced in 2016 gives me hope because young people have a unique opportunity to influence the adults in their lives (i.e. teachers, school administrators, their guardians, relatives, etc.). There is no minimum age threshold to become an environmental advocate or activist; anyone can inspire someone in their life to care about the environment, starting with small everyday habits such as recycling and composting (aka diverting food scraps from the trash!)

Are you an educator or school administrator interested in learning more about Think Zero LLC’s services? Reach out to learn more at

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