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 the 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 CIWMB 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.

For waste composition data for a specific school or school district, visit the CIWMB's Waste Stream Profiles database for schools. You can also use the CIWMB 1999 Solid Waste Characterization database to estimate the percentage of waste and the estimated waste composition that the educational services sector represents in each jurisdiction.

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 2%
Glass 2%
Household Hazardous Waste 1%
Metal 4%
Mixed Residue <1%
Organics 32%
Paper 47%
Plastic 12%
Special Waste <1%

Data Limitations and Details

Disposal composition data was developed from 101 samples from three different waste characterization studies. Over two-thirds 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 for sharing data from their 1995 waste characterization study.

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, Food Services). 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?

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 (Adobe PDF, 1.7 MB). Their Choosing to Reduce: How to Survey Waste on Your Campus booklet educates students on waste reduction and how to conduct a waste survey on campus.

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.

Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District, Ohio (Adobe PDF, 21 KB). The county provides information on the benefits and purpose of a school waste audit as well as how to conduct one.

Waste Audit Manual (Adobe PDF, 287 KB). This manual from the Ijams Nature Center's Earth Flag Program, An Environmental Challenge for East Tennessee Schools, provides information on how to conduct a waste audit to provide measurements of cafeteria waste, classroom waste, and office waste for an entire day's worth of trash generated from your school. The total weight calculated from the entire day's worth of trash is the estimate of trash thrown out daily. This figure can also be compared to data collected in a second waste audit at the end of the school year to show proof of waste reduction.

Oregon Green Schools Tools. 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.

Top of Page | Waste Reduction Home

Last updated: September 23, 2008
School Waste Reduction
Contact: (916) 341-6199 or