California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) 

Innovations Case Studies

Summary-School Recycling: Increasing Diversion Rates at School and in the Home

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California schools are home to more than seven million students, educators, or staff in more than 300 institutions of higher education, almost 1,000 school districts, and more than 4,000 private schools.  Waste from these facilities represents approximately 2 percent or more of California’s total waste stream. Schools and educational facilities can be one of the single largest waste generators in some jurisdictions.

Waste reduction, reuse, and recycling efforts have been ongoing for many years in many schools all across the state. These programs help local governments meet their diversion mandates and have saved school districts money. School facilities have been able to achieve diversion rates as high as 80 percent.

Innovative programs include the students in the school’s efforts. They also incorporate an educational curriculum such as the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)’s Closing the Loop to supplement the student’s participatory learning. The benefits of this knowledge translate into greater environmental awareness in the student’s home. Awareness can stimulate enhanced participation in the community waste reduction and recycling program and lead to more successful diversion and curbside efforts.

Although the school implements most programs, local governments can play an important role in helping to establish school recycling programs. There are a number of examples of innovative programs around the state, including the following:

  • Oak Grove Elementary School has achieved 80 percent diversion through a comprehensive program.
  • West Contra Costa County Unified School District developed its programs to mirror the local waste hauler programs.
  • UC Davis and Loyola-Marymont University generate quantities equivalent to a small or medium-sized community while achieving diversion rates over 40 percent.
  • Burbank Unified School District implemented a pilot “Waste Less Lunch” program, recovering 85 percent of cafeteria waste.
  • Fremont Unified School District has a dedicated staff person to oversee the overall program.
  • Los Angeles County schools participate in the “Generation Earth” program that includes a competition among local schools.

Costs, Economics, and Benefits

Establishing any program takes money and effort. Up-front costs associated with the cost of implementing a new program include equipment, staff training, educating students and staff, and program management.

Ongoing costs of collection and sorting are typically minimal compared to the savings from waste diversion and the income from the recycled materials. To help cover the startup and ongoing costs of operating a recycling program, schools should consider forming creative partnerships with businesses, students, and members of the public.

The community’s waste haulers and recyclers can help start or improve recycling programs. Haulers can provide bins for classrooms and offices and central collection receptacles, and they can transport the recyclable materials to recycling facilities. School officials can contact recyclers specializing in redemption containers and other marketable materials to pick up large volumes on a regular or an as-needed basis.

School recycling is effective in achieving waste diversion, and it can be economical for the school involved. Programs that rely upon students and teachers without requiring additional staff time can pay for themselves and result in reduced disposal costs for the school district or facility. School officials should make sure the program is properly documented and that the waste disposal contract is based on actual volumes disposed.

Tips for Replication

  • Maintaining motivation is a challenge in school recycling programs. A motivated person can get a program off the ground; a sustainable program will rely on many individuals.
  • Make sure there is broad range of participation from recyclers, administrators, educators, students, custodians, and parents.
  • Implement the program in phases so that it may be easily changed or updated.
  • Consider ways to involve students in the recycling program.
  • Make sure the level of participation by the students is appropriate based upon their grade level.
  • Monitor progress by surveying students and staff and by tracking diversion and disposal data. This information will assist in the planning of possible changes or expansion of the program.
  • Developing school programs that are similar to the local curbside recycling program will also promote greater participation at home by students and staff.


Pursuant to contract (IWM-C8028) with the University of California at Santa Cruz for a series of 24 studies and summaries, Californians Against Waste Foundation (Sacramento, CA) researched and wrote this summary for the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle).

The statements and conclusions in this summary are those of the contractor and not necessarily those of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), its employees, or the State of California. In addition, the data in this report was provided by local sources but not independently verified. The State and its contractors make no warranty, express or implied, and assume no liability for the information contained in this text. Any mention of commercial products, companies or processes shall not be construed as an endorsement of such products or processes.

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Last updated: October 5, 2015
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