When you implement a cafeteria recycling program at your school, you can feel good knowing you’re making a real impact. Just think about all the milk cartons, cardboard, and plastic packaging that goes through your cafeteria each day. Hundreds of pounds of waste could stay out of landfills with just a little planning and organization.

To get tips and tricks for setting up a strong cafeteria recycling program, we went to the pros. Marti Hirsh is an educator in the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, and Brittany Mitchell is a science teacher at Hobbton Middle School in Newton Grove, North Carolina. Then we also got tips from student Tyler Kuss, who is president of his school eco-club in Crown Point, Indiana.

All three have strong cafeteria recycling programs at their schools. Take a look and learn how you can start a cafeteria recycling program of your own.

1. Do your homework.

There’s a little bit of legwork to do upfront. For example, work with your food service provider to assess the types of materials that are sold and determine whether they are recyclable. You will also need to set expectations for custodial staff and ensure they are prepared to handle recyclables separately from trash. Finally, you might determine potential volume that you will collect by conducting a waste audit from a typical day or week of operation in the cafeteria so you can determine whether you can reduce trash hauling fees or need to increase recycling hauling frequency.

2. Put your recycling bins next to the garbage bins.

This one is easy to implement. You might think you want to separate the bins so it’s really clear about where to put items, but it’s best to keep them together. “This really does make a difference because people might be too lazy to walk to the bins,” Tyler says. He suggests keeping them together while finding other ways to distinguish the bins. For instance, you might want to add big labels. Or better yet, use different colors. And if you’re just getting started, consider having volunteers posted near the bins for the first few weeks of operation to help students sort materials into the right bins.

3. Make sure the openings in your recycling bins are small.

Student putting something into recycling can

This is another way to set the bin apart visually, helping people stop and really think about what they’re putting inside. “Bins should have restricted openings like a small hole in the lid so ONLY the recyclables can fit,” Tyler says. “This keeps kids from dumping their whole tray in or items that shouldn’t go.”

4. Keep your labels direct and simple.

You do want to have good labels, but they don’t need to be fancy or overly designed. “Ours are simple,” Tyler says. “They just say GLASS, CANS, PLASTIC CONTAINERS, and CARTONS. Then we also add a label on the trash can that says LANDFILL because it really makes people think before putting something in that bin.” Give this a try at your school to see if it helps reduce the amount of material that ends up in the trash.

5. Get your cafeteria staff on board to make a bigger difference.

Students sorting trash and recycling

Tyler says the kitchen staff is a huge help in increasing their overall recycling. At his school, the staff have their own bins for plastic film and wrap, cans, small boxes, plastic bags, and more. He says it really helps when the entire school community gets involved because others see it and want to help, too.

6. Extend your recycling into the classroom.

Recycling in the cafeteria is a quick way to collect a lot of items, but it’s only a start. At Marti’s school, the cafeteria serves as an important hub and collection spot. They have a strong composting program at the school, and all the classrooms have individual bins. Teachers support the program and then have students bring their classroom materials to the cafeteria every day. It helps keep a consistent message at the school and encourage recycling habits throughout the day.

7. Hold a friendly contest.

Students wearing costumes recycling

Students at Eisenhower Elementary in Boulder, Colorado recycle after lunch.

While recycling is a year-round activity at Marti’s school, she says there’s still an opportunity to increase participation with a contest. “One week out of every year, our entire school holds a zero-waste-lunch contest,” Marti says. “The winning grade level gets to choose what color the principal dyes his hair.” Marti says they do a lot of education during this time with families to talk about packing a sustainable lunch and how to encourage a zero-waste cafeteria. During the week after each grade level has eaten, they weigh the landfill trash. Then along with some calculations based on the number of students, the lightest amount overall is the winner.

8. Make cafeteria recycling a job, club, or position of honor.

Brandi has teams that are student ambassadors for the recycling efforts at her school. She says this is an honor reserved for eighth graders, and they train and prep the sixth and seventh graders to get them ready. “By the time the students get to eighth grade, they’re already excited to get involved,” she says.

9. Challenge your students to problem-solve.

Students smiling in front of bin with label Sharing Cart

If you have a recycling group or team that will do most of the organizing and heavy lifting, then it’s important to give everyone a job. “I have a team of collectors, sorters, transporters, educators, and ambassadors,” Brandy says. “I tell them what needs to be done—sometimes I give them a problem to figure out—and they make it happen.” The students at Crown Point put their problem-solving skills to the test, too when they created a sharing cart in their cafeteria. Students can put items they don’t want on the cart to share with others. It’s a great way to trade, share, and have less waste overall. 

10. Let students pick how they want to be involved.

It’s also important to let students have a say in their work. It just doesn’t work to tell students, especially middle school students, what to do or what they should be excited about. Brandi has learned this over the years, and it’s why she lets her students pick how to get involved. “It’s exciting to be part of something bigger than just coming to school,” she says. “I don’t have data on this, but I’m pretty sure that attendance increased for my students involved in our Recycle Rally program.”

11. Let the program evolve to fit your students and school.

“You don’t have to have everything planned out to start,” Brandi says. “Just get started—even if it’s one student with one water bottle.” She says she understands it can be daunting to take the plunge, but it can start out small. “I like the term FAIL—First Attempt in Learning.”

12. Be excited; your enthusiasm matters.

“If you think it’s important, they will think it’s important, too,” says Brittany. She says students pick up on your passions and they also know when it’s truly authentic. So if you’re excited about a cafeteria recycling program, let it show! Also, if you have admin or others at the school that want to see it do well, make sure your students see that as well. It can help in overall participation and buy-in.

13. Remember that students make great leaders.

Students holding up trash bag

Sometimes program planning and implementation falls into the hands of adults, but at the end of the day, this has to be something that students are willing to help out with and take on. Task your students with leadership challenges and give them authority to implement change. They might be thinking of something far bigger or better than you can imagine. Brittany says her students always surprise her with thinking of new things to tackle, and she encourages other teachers to always look to their students for new ideas and implementation.

Do you need signs or other material to get your cafeteria recycling program going? Check out the free school resources at PepsiCo Recycling’s Recycle Rally website.