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Cafeteria Waste

4.3 based on 12 ratings

Updated on Nov 13, 2012


Environmental Sciences


4 and higher

Difficulty of Project


Cost (Approximate Cost of completing the project)

Less than $10

Safety Issues


Material Availability


Approximate Time Required to Complete the Project

Approximately 2-3 hours, variable depending on complexity of designs selected.

To observe products available in the school cafeteria and waste produced by these products.

To explore options for reducing the total waste produced by the school cafeteria.

  • Notebook
  • Writing utensil
  • Computer access (for analysis and internet research)
  • Presentation materials for desired presentation method (power point, poster, etc.)

Across the United States some school cafeterias use mostly reusable items (which also need to be washed, stored, and have higher upfront costs) while others favor disposable items (which produce more waste). Some cafeterias provide each student with the same selection of food while others allow students to choose what goes on their plate. Some offer many whole foods (eg. Fruits) while others offer solely packaged items. Each of these offerings produces waste and varying environmental impacts. How does your school cafeteria operate and how well is it doing at reducing the quantity of waste it sends to the landfill every week?

Research Questions
  1. What items does your school cafeteria currently offer? What type of packaging is used? What type of flatware and dishes are provided?
  2. Of these items, which are recyclable in your area?
  3. After the one week observation, what happens to both the recyclable and non-recyclable waste from your school cafeteria? What were the most commonly thrown away items by the students?What were the most commonly thrown away items by the cafeteria staff?
  4. How could your school cafeteria operate differently to reduce the total waste produced?
  5. What alternatives did you identify for the commonly trashed items?
  6. What do you think the most important next step is for reducing trash produced in your school cafeteria?
Terms, Concepts and Questions to Start Background Research

Recycling – processing used materials to create new products

Reusing – using a product repeatedly for the same purpose or for a new one

‘Green’ packaging – varying definitions are used to define packaging that is either made from recycled materials, renewable resources, or both.

Recycled content – the percentage of an item produced from a product that has already been used at least once (the opposite of recycled content would be virgin material)

  1. Create a list of the items available in your school cafeteria including whether the dishes and flatware are reusable.
  2. Once a day for one week examine the items thrown away in the cafeteria trash – both from students and from kitchen staff. (Tip: Take a few photographs to include in your presentation.)
  3. At week’s end examine this list and identify any items that could have been recycled but were not.
  4. Of the non-recyclable items on your list, brainstorm and conduct research to find any alternatives that use less material, contain recycled content, can be reused, et cetera.
  5. Select the ‘top 5’ alternatives/strategies that you believe will have the greatest impact on trash reduction at your school. Display or discuss these products or strategies during your presentation (and send a copy to your school principal!).

Recycle Works Kids
Kids Recycle! Tools for Zero Waste
Natural Cafeteria Packaging
Sustainable Cafeteria Food
Setting up a School Recycling Program

Alexa Bach McElrone is an independent consultant based in the San Francisco Bay area. Employed as a sustainability advisor, she works at the nexus of people, profit, and our planet's natural resources to build stronger communities and empower the next generation.