Lunchroom Recycling Plan (middle school)
  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 03. Philanthropy and Economics
      1. Benchmark HS.5 Give examples of stewardship decisions throughout history and in current events.
      2. Benchmark E.5 Recognize the wise use of resources as <i>stewardship</i>.
      3. Benchmark HS.9 Analyze a major social issue as a "commons problem" and suggest ways the civil society sector could help to resolve it.
    2. Standard PCS 05. Philanthropy and Government
      1. Benchmark E.9 Describe how philanthropic activities can bring about social change.
    3. Standard PCS 06. Philanthropy in History
      1. Benchmark E.2 Give an example of an individual who used social action to remedy an unjust condition.
    4. Standard PCS 07. Skills of Civic Engagement
      1. Benchmark E.1 Explore and research issues and present solutions using communication tools.
      2. Benchmark HS.1 Utilize the persuasive power of written or oral communication as an instrument of change in the community, nation or the world.

Students organize and implement a school-based recycling plan based on a one-day lunchroom waste audit.

Adapt this one-period lesson plan and follow it with a simple and powerful service project for Earth Day. The reflection brings learning and service impact together. 

Photo credit: Lunchroom by Rob Ireton is licensed under CC by 4.0 

PrintOne class period, plus time for a project

Students will be able to...

  • classify recyclable materials.
  • state recycling criteria.
  • work collaboratively to collect and analyze waste in the lunchroom.
  • make a decision about a plan of action.
  • copy of the PowerPoint slide show to facilitate this lesson (below)
  • four trash bins for collecting waste
  • gloves, goggles, and other safety gear to protect students from germs
  • scale for weighing waste
Home Connection: 

Discuss ways to reduce waste at home.

  1. Anticipatory Set: Show a video about recycling and discuss the practice of recycling (8 min): 

    Questions for discussion: 

    • What do you recycle at home? Is it all mixed together in one bin or do you separate it? 
    • What are some things that can be made with recycled metals, paper, and plastics? 
    • Why would we want to reduce our waste? Why would we care if we don’t see it anymore?
  2. Set the stage for organizing a recycling program at school.

    • Discuss benefits of reducing waste at school and how philanthropic activities (voluntary action by the students) can bring about social change and a better world.
    • Give examples of social activists, such as Rachel Carson and Bill Nye the Science Guy, who are philanthropists because they change attitudes by sharing their time and talent for the common good. Define philanthropy as “using our time, talent, or treasure and taking action for the common good.”
  3. What are our school’s practices related to waste, and where can we improve?

    • Ask the students where they have seen waste and a need for recycling at school.
    • Display a visual with items that can and cannot be recycled. This may be available from a local waste company or city services office.
    • Investigate where the recycling waste at your school is hauled. Share the requirements of that facility of what recyclable items your community accepts and how it should be prepared. Find out why some items cannot be recycled (poisons, mixed materials, Styrofoam, food saturated materials, dirty towels, tissues, used paper cups, and lunch trays).  
  4. Explain that they will conduct a school waste audit to help them understand where improvements in recycling are needed. The information they gather will help them plan their service plan of action to establish a school-wide recycling plan.

  5. One-Day Waste Audit

    Divide your class into teams to carry out the waste audit in the school lunch room:

    • collecting team: before lunch sets up four labeled trash cans to collect wet and dry waste
    • analysis team: determines the sorting criteria (paper, cardboard, plastic, compostable, etc.)
    • sorting team: sorts all waste per criteria on two large tarps
    • weighing team: after lunch, weighs all of the garbage cans and brings to sorting area

    Add or combine teams based on the number of students in your class. 

  6. Waste Collection Notes:

    • The collecting team should stand near the four bins to guide students on how to sort their trash.
    • After lunch, the collecting team may collect wet and dry waste throughout the building.
    •  The sorting team must wear gloves, goggles, and spare clothes to avoid contact with germs.
    • Once sorting is complete, the analysis team weighs and counts material in each category.
    • Take pictures throughout the process to share with your school community.
  7. Waste Audit Report: Students analyze the collections from each category and graph the results:

    • What percentage can be recycled? _____ ({Total of RECYCLABLES} ÷ by {Total of recyclables and trash amounts} x 100 = %)
    • What percentage is actually “trash?” _____ ({Total of TRASH} } ÷ by { Total of recyclables & trash amounts} x 100 = %)
  8. Reflect on data and determine the next steps:

    • What can we improve and how can we educate others to reduce/re-use/recycle/compost materials?
    • What are our next steps to reduce the amount of waste in our school, community, or households? Can we set a goal for a waste-free lunchroom?
    • What is one thing we can do tomorrow to lessen the amount of waste in our school? 
  9. Plan and Carry out a Service Project: Students share the results of the audit, share information about why waste reduction is important to them, collect information about student attitudes, and plan a project to reduce waste and raise awareness of things to do to reduce waste at school.

  10. Procedure: 

    Students conduct a school-wide awareness and attitude survey about waste at school. They write questions to find out what people know and care about and whether a recycling or waste-reduction plan is wanted. The survey will inform what information and materials are needed to get participation. Share the survey, collect responses, and analyze the data to inform next steps.

  11. As a whole group, brainstorm ways to reduce waste in the lunchroom. This may include informational or motivational ideas. Maybe the project is to ask everyone to pack lunch items in reusable containers instead of plastic bags, use cloth napkins from home rather than paper, only taking the food you are going to eat, and asking the lunch room to serve on non-Styrofoam trays. 

  12. Make and carry out a waste-reduction plan in the lunchroom with bins and education about processes. 

  13. Students create posters and informational flyers. Put them up around your school, on social media, and in the community to teach students about waste and communicate a plan.


Students write a response: What do you think is the most important reason to reduce waste at home and at school? What is one thing you can do to reduce waste that you can keep doing? 


Follow the service project with a brief reflection in writing, in partner discussions, and whole-group discussion.

  1. Discuss observations of the impact of the campaign. How did other students respond? Did the project impact attitudes and practices of the class? Of the school? Of families?
  2. Share the reflections with Learning to Give and a national audience. The TeachOne initiative connects teachers across the country with others who completed this project. 
  3. Discuss what they'd like to do next to continue their waste-reduction efforts.