A Messy Survey

3, 4, 5

The lesson introduces the concept of recycling food waste by composting. Students investigate food waste in their school and the nation, and gain awareness of recycling food waste as a better way to care for the earth. The class communicates in writing their plans for and results of a food-waste survey to the school population. 

PrintTwo 45-Minute Class Periods, Plus Time for a Lunch-Hour Food-Waste Survey

The learner will:

  • define environmental stewardship.
  • recognize the need for recycling food waste.
  • develop questions in order to understand the importance and process of composting.
  • investigate food waste in the school.
  • demonstrate understanding of new vocabulary through graphic representations.
  • communicate in writing the results of their food-waste survey.
  • A gallon-size, sealed plasticbag of household garbage, including food waste (banana, potato or orange peelings; bread crusts, vegetable remains, etc.), paper, empty tin can, glass bottle, leaves and small sticks, grass clippings, etc.
  • Student copies of Handout One: Parent Letter and Handout Two: Composting Vocabulary
  • Computer and Internet access
Teacher Preparation 

On the day of the project, it is suggested that the teacher allow the students to have their lunch and recess in advance, so they have time to make these observations.

Home Connection 

At the start of the unit, send home copies of Handout One: Family Letter to inform families of the intent of the unit.


 Literature Books about Compost 

  • Compost! Growing Gardens From Your Garbage by Linda Glaser: ISBN-10: 0761300309   ISBN-13: 978-0761300304
  •  Composting: Nature's Recyclers by  Robin Koontz  : ISBN-13: 978-1404822009   ISBN-10: 1404822003 
  • A Handful of Dirt by Raymond Bial : ISBN-10: 0802786987 ISBN-13: 978-0802786982
 Information about Compost


  1. Day One

    Anticipatory Set:

    Show students the demonstration bag of household trash (described in theMaterials field above). Ask the students to observe and namewhat is in the sealedbag. List on a display area the items they name. Have them use their prior knowledge to determine howeach of the items in the bag might be disposed of in an earth-friendly way. Help them identify systems they may already have in school, community, and home to recycle much of what is in the bag (glass, paper, metal). Ask the students, "Where do you think this discarded food will end up?" "Why should we be concerned about food waste?" and "How can we be better caretakers of the earth with our food waste?"

  2. If not suggested by students, tell them that composting is a way to use food wastethat will benefit the earth and people. Define composting as the decomposition of once-living plant materials to make nutrient-rich soil. It is part of "recycle, reduce, and reuse" that can have a dramatic effect on reducing the amount of garbage sent to landfills.

  3. Ask students if any of their families presently compost food or yard waste and, if so, to share what they do.

  4. Tell the students that in the next few days, using their science, math, language arts, and other knowledge and skills, they will become composting experts so they can teach others about its importance, acting as environmental stewards to make the world a better place. Share these definitions of environmental and stewardship as:

    • Environment: the natural world of land, water, air, plants, and animals
    • Stewardship: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care
  5. Ask the students to develop a class definition of "Environmental Stewardship" combining the concepts of these two words.

  6. Create a KWL chart on a display area. Ask the students to brainstorm the "K" (what they think they know about composting), and the "W" (what they need or want to know, written in question form).

  7. Share these statistics with the students. According to the EPA’s "Municipal Solid Waste in the United States 2007 Facts and Figures": Over 8 percent of the waste each person generates could be recovered for composting. That works out to over 140 pounds per person, per year. Yard waste and trimmings account for nearly 13 percent of municipal solid waste in the United States. This waste consists of grass, leaves, tree and brush trimmings and adds up to approximately 33 million tons each year. Through composting, we can reduce the amount of yard waste that needs to be disposed. Approximately 12 percent of the municipal solid waste in the United States is food scraps. While it may seem like a small percentage, it equals nearly 32 million tons per year. Like yard waste, food waste scraps can also be composted.

  8. Ask students to hypothesize how much food is wasted during lunch in their school. (As evidence for the hypothesis, have them think about what they throw away and see others throw away. And tell them how many students are in the school.) Record their predictions of number of food items thrown away in one lunch period. Encourage them to support their hypotheses with an explanation.

  9. Tell students that they are going to take an informal tally on one school day to get some idea of the quantity of waste. With the students, determine a day they will volunteer to do the food-waste survey. Determine the lunch menu items for that day and list them on a tally form. Brainstorm with the students what other types or categories of food students might bring in their lunches from home, and add those to the tally sheet.(See Extension for an alternative approach to the lunchroom survey.)

  10. Ask students to count the number of waste receptacles used during their lunch period. Assign teams to monitor each receptacle. Each team will need a tally sheet, pencil, and a writing surface, such as a clipboard. Teach the students how to make tally marks (four vertical lines and a cross mark for the fifth tally) so they can be counted by fives.

  11. As a class, write a "news bulletin"(answering the five questions of a news story -- what, when, who, how, and why) to inform the other students in the school about the food-waste survey, explaining the waste survey project, and asking the students to help by disposing of their waste food slowly on that day so the teams have time to do the tallies.

  12. Before the food-waste tally day, ask for volunteers to deliver the news bulletin to the other teachers in the school and ask them to share it with their students.

  13. On the chosen day, the teams will monitor each receptacle and make one tally mark for every item of food waste (milk, fruit, etc.) that is put into the receptacle.

  14. Tell the students that during the next class period, they will add all the tally sheets to determine the quantity of food wasted. Then they will discuss the data collected and decide whether food waste is a problem in their school.

  15. Day Two (after students conduct the food-waste survey)

  16. Ask each group to count by fives to tally all the items they documented during the food-waste survey. As a class, create a graph showing the totals for all the items counted. Analyze the graph by discussing what items were discarded most, discarded least, etc. Ask the students if they think there is a food-waste problem in their schools and how they think their school compares with the national statistics discovered in the prior discussion.

  17. Discuss the data collected in terms of amount of food waste per person. If possible, compare the volume of food waste to other lunch waste and talk about approximate fractions or percentages, as age appropriate.

  18. As a class, write a "news bulletin," sharing information they learned from the food-waste survey to distribute to the other classes in the school.

  19. Review the questions generated from the KWL chart in the previous class period. Ask the students if they have any questions they would like to add to the list.

  20. Distribute copies of Handout Two: Composting Vocabulary. As a class read, discuss, and clarify each definition. Allow students to form small groups. Assign to each group a few of the vocabulary words and ask them to create an icon, or symbol, for each of their words that will help them remember the definition. Have them draw each icon on a large sheet of paper and write the vocabulary word underneath. Ask each group to post their icons in the room and explain why/how they chose that image. (Leave the icons and definitions posted in the classroom for use during the next lessons.)

  21. Ask the students whether the vocabulary activity answered any of the questions on the KWL chart. If so, fill in the "L" or Learn column with the answer(s). If more questions are raised in the discussion, add them to the "K" part of the chart.


Teacher observes learner participation in discussion, writing activities, and the lunchroom survey and data analysis.

Cross Curriculum 

Learners will conduct a survey to determine needs in their school for environmental stewardship related to food waste.They will report their finding to the school population.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 03. Philanthropy and Economics
      1. Benchmark E.5 Recognize the wise use of resources as <i>stewardship</i>.
    2. Standard PCS 07. Skills of Civic Engagement
      1. Benchmark E.1 Explore and research issues and present solutions using communication tools.
      2. Benchmark E.2 Discuss an issue affecting the common good in the classroom or school and demonstrate respect and courtesy for differing opinions.
      3. Benchmark E.3 Participate in acts of democratic citizenship in the classroom or school, such as voting, group problem solving, classroom governance or elections.
  2. Strand PHIL.III Philanthropy and the Individual
    1. Standard PI 01. Reasons for Individual Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark E.1 Describe one reason why a person might give or volunteer.
      2. Benchmark E.2 Identify why people practice philanthropy related to their own self-interest.
      3. Benchmark E.3 Define stewardship and give examples.
      4. Benchmark E.5 Give examples of actions students can take to improve the common good and list or describe responsibilities that go with those actions.
  3. Strand PHIL.IV Volunteering and Service
    1. Standard VS 01. Needs Assessment
      1. Benchmark E.1 Identify a need in the school, local community, state, nation, or world.
      2. Benchmark E.2 Research the need in the school, neighborhood, local community, state, nation, or world.