California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)


School Waste Composition

School Waste Characterization Data

Waste characterization means finding out how much paper, glass, food waste, etc. is discarded in your waste stream. This typically involves collecting, sorting, and weighing waste generated at schools and district facilities. Waste characterization information helps in planning how to reduce waste, set up recycling programs, and conserve money and other resources.

One of the first steps in developing a districtwide waste reduction program is to identify the characterization of the school waste stream. This task is a critical component of conducting a districtwide waste assessment. A school district does not need to complete a comprehensive waste characterization study to estimate the composition of its waste stream. The Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) has collected and prepared school waste characterization data that can be used as a tool by a school district to help plan new waste reduction programs and to evaluate existing efforts. The following chart illustrates the estimated composition of waste disposed by schools in California. These data may not be representative of the waste composition of your school or school district (see data limitations and details below), in which case, you can refer to Seeing Green Through Waste Prevention--A Guide for School Districts (Pub. #500-94-010) regarding how to evaluate your school district's specific waste stream for waste reduction planning. Additionally, provided below are other resources for conducting a school waste characterization audit (waste audit) either for program planning or for instructional purposes.

Material Classes Disposed in the School Waste Stream

A pie chart illustrating the estimated percentage of material waste types disposed of by California schools.

To learn more about the specific materials within each category listed on the graph see the material type class constituents.

Material Classes Disposed in the School Waste Stream (as shown in the pie chart above)
Material Type Percent (%) of Waste Stream
Construction and Demolition Waste 1.0%
Glass 0.6%
Household Hazardous Waste 0.0%
Metal 4.3%
Mixed Residue <0.8%
Organics 48.3%
Paper 33.4%
Plastic 11.1%
Special Waste 0.5%

Data Limitations and Details

Disposal composition data was developed from 82 samples from three different waste characterization studies conducted in 1999, 2001, and 2006. Over three-quarters of these samples were from schools in Southern California urban areas. Since the predominance of the data were derived from Southern California, these data cannot be considered "statewide average" data, but these analyses do make use of all the data available in California at this time.

Additionally, this pie chart represents materials disposed and does not include materials recycled. Different schools have different recycling programs, which affect the type of remaining materials disposed. As a result, this chart may not reflect the waste stream of a particular school or district.

Special thanks to the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation/Solid Resources Citywide Recycling Division and the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works for sharing data from their waste characterization studies.

Waste Audit versus Waste Assessment

A waste audit is a method of determining the school district's waste characterization. Waste characterization means finding out how much paper, glass, food waste, etc. is discarded in the school district waste stream. This typically involves collecting, sorting, and weighing waste generated at the district schools and facilities. Waste characterization information helps in planning how to reduce waste, set up recycling programs, and conserve money and other resources. Identifying the school waste characterization is a critical component of conducting a districtwide waste assessment.

A waste assessment consists of interviews and site visits to district facilities. Interviews are conducted with the superintendent, chief business official and managers from each school district department (for example; Business Services, Transportation, Purchasing, Child Nutrition). The purpose is to identify, document, and evaluate each component of the school districts' waste management system and to develop cost-effective recommendations for program improvement (that is, identifying additional opportunities to incorporate waste prevention, reuse, recycling, environmentally preferable procurement practices, composting, and "green building" design into the districts' business systems). The interviews are followed by site visits to specific school district facilities, such as food preparation areas, cafeterias, food and supply warehouses, maintenance and custodial service areas, transportation facilities, print shops, and administrative areas. Site visits to the offices and grounds of each type of school--high, middle, and elementary--are also important.

A waste assessment is a broad method of documenting and evaluating what is entering the school district and analyzing what is being disposed (waste characterization). A waste assessment includes an evaluation of district purchases and how resources are used.

When examining the district's resources, it is helpful to ask these questions:

  • Do we need this?
  • Can we use less?
  • Can we reuse it?
  • Can we recycle it?
  • Can we use it more efficiently?

Again, a waste audit is the component within the waste assessment that details what is being thrown away such as the type, quantity, and origin of waste produced. In addition to a waste audit, an effective waste assessment identifies and evaluates school district policies and procedures that affect waste generation. A waste assessment can be used as a tool to identify wasteful practices and create opportunities to increase efficiency, reduce waste, and lower costs.

Using the information from a school district waste assessment, a report can be prepared to:

  • Explain the purpose of the waste assessment.
  • Describe the methodology used.
  • Document the current waste management system.
  • Estimate waste composition.
  • Identify waste reduction opportunities.
  • Recommend waste reduction policy and operating procedures.
  • Recommend waste reduction strategies.
  • Describe opportunities for implementation.
  • Provide local and state resource and contact information (recycling coordinator, recyclers, funding opportunities, etc.).

A copy of the waste assessment report should be provided to the district superintendent for implementation consideration. The waste assessment can be used to:

  • Identify waste reduction priorities.
  • Write a plan of action.
  • Track program progress.
  • Make program adjustments.
  • Gain recognition for the district's efforts and opportunities.

A waste assessment can also be integrated into classroom instruction as an example of environment-based education--using the environment as a tool for achieving broader educational goals.

Waste Assessment and Audit Resources

Los Angeles County Generation Earth. How-to-guides and worksheets for completing a school or classroom waste audit.

San Mateo County RecycleWorks. The objective of a school waste audit is to introduce the idea to your students and staff that garbage doesn't just disappear once it is collected in your garbage can. You can't just throw it away. It can be compacted, buried, or changed to ash and vapor but the garbage must all go somewhere. This audit will show students the quantity of their waste at school that is recyclable. You can conduct a waste audit of your classroom, school, or home using these concepts.

StopWaste.Org outlines tools to help you conduct your own school waste audit and action project.

Green Schools Initiative provides a curriculum overview to help get you started on analyzing and reducing your school's garbage, waste, and recycling efforts. It includes data sheets and sample results for doing an audit of garbage for a whole school and/or for one classroom.

Oregon Green Schools Tools (PDF, 146 KB). Creating Healthy School Environments through Resource Efficiency provides instructions on how to conduct resource assessments for materials, energy and water, identifying resource efficiency opportunities, planning, tracking, and reporting.

Oregon Green Schools Association offers “What’s In Your Waste?” A guide to conducting a waste audit. There are two versions of the waste audit forms. The “Waste Audit (Simple)” form is downloadable from this site. The ” Waste Audit (Comprehensive, MS Excel Format) ” version adds some extra features, such as allowing you customize your findings and it automatically creates pie charts to help explain the results of your audits.

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Last updated: January 21, 2015
School Waste Reduction
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