War on school waste

Following last year’s ABC TV series ‘War On Waste’ there is renewed community focus on waste reduction. Council Communications Officer, Janelle Kennard, looks at what resources are available to help schools reduce their waste and ways that P&Cs can help.

Reducing waste is an important – and urgent – part of planning for a sustainable future. Schools have an important role to play, not just in teaching sustainability, but in showing what is possible and creating less garbage. But schools are also complex places – the meeting place of many households and the grounds on which many different activities occur.

The good news is that schools can reduce their waste (many ACT schools have already made great progress), that help is available, and that parents and P&Cs can play an important role.

BinsCaptionHelp for sustainable schools

We’re lucky to have the ACT Government’s free Actsmart Schools program which helps schools improve their sustainability. All ACT schools have signed up to this program – a national first!

Actsmart supports schools to increase recycling, save energy, conserve water, protect biodiversity, cut greenhouse gas emissions and integrate sustainability into the curriculum. Schools are evaluated through an accreditation system and rewarded for their efforts with certificates and teaching resources (like books, games and kits).

Reducing waste

Up to 86% of school waste in the ACT can be recycled or reused instead of going to landfill. That’s a big figure.

Actsmart have education officers who can visit your school and provide advice on recycling systems, and a Waste and Recycling Best Practice Guide that provides step-by-step instructions and recommendations to help schools reduce, reuse and recycle their waste and develop a waste and recycling action plan.

Unfortunately, it is up to each individual school to purchase and label bins (Actsmart can provide the bin stickers) and to negotiate their waste-management contract (bin collections).

Looking in the bin

An important first step is understanding what is currently being thrown into landfill bins at the school. The Actsmart team can also help schools with a waste audit to examine current school waste and see what most needs to be addressed.

Recent figures from audits in seven ACT schools show that there is a lot of room for improvement.

In primary schools, 16% of waste is recyclable paper and cardboard, 48% compostable organics, 22% other recyclable materials, and only 14% actual garbage. In secondary schools, 27% of waste is paper and cardboard, 29% compostable organics, 29% other recyclables, and only 15% garbage.

The right bin

Reducing waste often starts with making sure recyclables are collected and sent to recycling, rather than being thrown in a bin destined for landfill. Actsmart have posters, bin stickers and an interactive display to show what goes in which bin and can give presentations to classes to help make sure items get to the right bin.

“In primary schools, once the kids know the waste system, they are pretty good at following it. This means that waste ends up in the right place and reduces contamination. It also means the amount of waste to landfill starts to reduce,” Olivia Merrick, the Manager of Actsmart Schools explained.

Box sustainavbleDealing with food waste

According to Olivia, one big area for schools to address is their food waste.

“Organics are a huge part of a school’s waste – nearly half at primary schools,” she said. “Composting is one option, but is labour intensive. Chickens are also a fun option. Worm farms are an excellent option. You can purchase them from the hardware store or you can get assistance with setting up and managing your worm farm from waste companies.”

In some schools, addressing their food waste and sorting recyclables properly has meant that they have been able to reduce the size of their land-fill skip bin, meaning a cost saving!

Nude food

“During a waste audit, when kids look at what is in the bins, they can see that a lot of it comes from home, from their own lunch boxes. It can give a real impetus to waste-avoidance programs like a waste-free lunch, the October nude-food month or a waste-free Wednesday at the school.”

Parents sometimes question the value of waste-free lunches, especially if it just means taking some foods out of their packaging at home and placing it in lunch boxes ‘nude’, but Olivia says there is still great value in this.

“The kids don’t see the packaging. For them unpackaged food becomes normal and that is an important change.”

Actsmart also have resources to help with packing waste-free lunchboxes. All ACT schools are Actsmart schools and have access to their free resources. If you are not sure how your school is involved, contact Actsmart to see where your school is up to in their accreditation process.

How P&Cs can help

Experience shows that addressing school sustainability really takes a team approach. The more people on board the better and that means that parents – and the P&C – have an important role to play. It can be as simple as being interested and supportive.

You could invite an Actsmart officer or your school’s contact teacher to a P&C meeting to hear more about the school’s waste-reduction efforts. Then, practical ways the P&C can assist might be obvious, like providing a prize for the class with the least lunch waste, buying bins or a worm farm, or rostering volunteers for the composting.


In schools where the P&C runs the canteen, there is a lot of opportunity for the canteen to help reduce waste, for example by:

  • Adding food scraps to the school’s compost or worm farm, or starting one for the canteen.
  • Rethinking packaging. Could compostable or recyclable containers replace current ones? Is unnecessary packaging used on some items?
  • Replacing throw-away cutlery or containers with re-usable items (eg spoons and mugs) which kids return to the canteen for washing. Council has confirmed that a possible source of funding for buying reusables (and a commerical dishwasher to clean them!) is the school's solar feed-in tariff.

Low waste events 

P&Cs often run large events for the school or extended community where waste reduction can be considered and large improvements made. See more in this article.

Find out more

For more information, and how to contact the Actsmart Schools team,  see the Actsmart website: www.actsmart.act.gov.au .  


This article appeared in ParentACTion Magazine, Term 1, 2019.