Lunchroom Recycling Plan (elementary)

K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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

Adapt this one-period lesson plan for your grade level 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 

PrintTwo class periods, plus time for a project

Students will be able to...

  • classify recyclable materials.
  • work collaboratively to collect and analyze waste in the lunchroom.
  • make a decision about a plan of action.
  • containers for collecting waste - may be big plastic tubs and trash bins borrowed from the kitchen
  • gloves, goggles, and other safety gear to protect students from germs
  • big plastic bags to line containers and separate waste
  • scale for weighing waste
Teacher Preparation 

Seek approval for a lunchroom waste audit ahead of time from school administrator, as well as coordinate with the custodial staff. Discuss with district food personnel the guidelines for hosting a cafeteria "share table" for uneaten food. Also contact the community offices or local waste management to find out what materials your community/school is able to recycle. 

Write this statement of purpose on the board: I can organize and implement a school-based recycling plan based on a school-wide waste audit. 

  • decompose: break down into simpler components
  • waste: material that is not wanted; unusable remains
  • recycle: to remake or convert to a new usuable material 
  • philanthropy: using our time, talent, or treasure and taking action for the common good
Home Connection 

Discuss ways to reduce waste at home.


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. Discuss what they'd like to do next to continue their recycling efforts. 


  1. Anticipatory Set: Show a video about recycling and discuss the practice of recycling. []

    Questions for discussion:

    • What is waste? What are examples of things that are waste? 
    • What do you think is the best reason to reduce our waste? (keep things out of landfills, preserve the environment, less pollution, better use of resources and space, save money)
    • What are some things that can be recycled? What cannot be recycled?
  2. Talk about where we see waste and where we see recycling or reusing. Talk about what is thrown away in the lunchroom. Talk about what is picked up by or brought to a recycling facility and what happens to it there.

    Note: ask a representative from the recycling facility to talk to the class.

  3. Ask the students to tell how good they think their school is at reducing, reusing, and recycling. They can show their perception by holding up 1-5 fingers. Five fingers means we are really good at it, and one finger means we have to get a lot better at it. Maybe we are doing some good things and can get better (2, 3, or 4 fingers). 

    Talk about what could be managed better. 

  4. Discuss benefits of reducing waste at school and how 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.”

  5. Tell the students that they are going to do a big investigation of the school lunchroom to find out how much waste there is. It's called a lunchroom waste audit. An audit is an official investigation that includes collecting information. Then they will make a plan to see how much waste they can prevent by reducing, reusing, and recycling.

  6. In preparation for the lunchroom waste audit, students take on the following roles and use the identified collection/measurement tools:

    • analysis team: determines the sorting criteria and makes labels (paper and cardboard, plastic, metal, leftover food and drink)
    • collection team: before lunch they set up the labeled containers to collect waste; they help students sort as they leave the lunchroom
    • sorting police: before lunch, instruct everyone about the project and the rules of sorting; after lunch, makes sure all waste is sorted correctly into separate plastic garbage bags 
    • weighing team: after lunch, weighs all of the garbage bags separately and (totals) together - use the waste audit formula below for determining percentages (with help of older students)

    The goal is to collect and measure waste and then analyze the waste and discuss ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle. They report back to the school about the measurements, reasons for reducing waste, and proposal for improvements. 

  7. Investigation Day:

    Students set up the containers, anounce the plan to all student body, collect and measure, and then analyze the results. 

    SAFETY NOTE: Students should be aware of safety and be covered (gloves and goggles and aprons) as they handle other students' waste. Be cautious of allergies. 

  8. 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 = %)

    Reflect on data and determine the next steps:

    1. What can we improve, and how can we educate others and create systems and habits to reduce/re-use/recycle materials? Why is it important?
    2. 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?
    3. Conduct a survey: Would students pack lunches in reusable containers, bring cloth napkins, and only take food they plan to eat?
    4. Will the school lunch program consider changing from disposable to reusable materials or making a "share table" for uneaten food? 

    Composting Extension: Some waste can be composted and used to fertilize a school garden. Students may learn more about what is needed to add a compost bin to the lunch room and then manage the compost so it doesn’t smell and so it turns into fertilizer (research what can be composted and how to maintain it).

  9. Students create posters and flyers with information, tips, and motivations. Put them up around your school, on social media, and in the community to teach students about recycling and communicate a plan.


After implementing their plan, students do a second audit and ask other students for feedback. 

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 01. Define Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark E.1 Define philanthropy as the giving and sharing of time, talent, or treasure intended for the common good.
    2. Standard DP 02. Roles of Government, Business, and Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark E.6 Explain why acting philanthropically is good for the community, state, nation, or world.
    3. Standard DP 04. Operational Characteristics of Nonprofit Organizations
      1. Benchmark E.1 Describe how citizens organize in response to a need.
    4. Standard DP 06. Role of Family in Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark E.2 Identify examples of families supporting giving and sharing.
  2. 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>.
  3. Strand PHIL.III Philanthropy and the Individual
    1. Standard PI 01. Reasons for Individual Philanthropy
      1. 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.
  4. 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.