Parents and Educators: find resources for at-home and distance learning

Personal Waste Eco-Audit

Authored by EcoRise and Representaciones e Inteligencia Sustentable

80 minutes
30 minutes in first class period; 24-hour trash collection period; 50 minutes in second class period
Primary subjects: 
7, 8
Average: 0 (0 votes)

In this lesson, students learn how much waste the average person produces and think about how their own daily waste production compares to that average. Then they spend 24 hours collecting all the (nonhazardous) wastes they personally generate. Next, students inventory and log their results and reflect on how their waste production compares to the global average. Students also make a list of the electronic items they own or have owned and consider their personal role in managing e-wastes responsibly.

Key objectives for students
Predict the amount of waste they generate each day.
Collect personal wastes for one day.
Organize, analyze, and compare personal waste-production data.
Explore their personal history with electronics and e-waste production.
Identify and develop solutions for reducing personal waste and e-waste production.
Secondary subjects
Civics and Government, Environmental Education, Mathematics
Waste, Trash, Consumption, Consumerism, Audit, Eco-audit, Compost, recycling, Electronic waste, e-waste
Systems thinking
Curiosity, Mindfulness, Resilience
Brain-Based Learning, Multi-Disciplinary, Multiple Intelligences, Project-Based Learning, Real-World Application, Technology Integration
Background information for teachers

This lesson is one that students often remember long after it’s complete. Most of us are not aware of our personal waste habits, so asking students to slow down and pay attention to the materials they throw away can be an eye-opening experience. As students become enlightened about their own personal waste production, they are more interested in and motivated to adopt new habits for waste management, such as recycling and composting. Changing personal behavior is not easy, especially when it is a habit we learned from our families and cultures; however, giving students opportunities to think about their personal habits and attitudes and independently come up with ideas for sustainable alternatives is a great way to change personal behavior.

Previous skills needed

Addition; subtraction; calculating percentages; measuring weight; recording data

In Advance
  • You may wish to conduct this activity yourself before assigning it to students so that you can share your own experience and answer questions as they come up.
  • Determine when you are going to have students start and stop collecting their waste. You may wish to have them begin the next day when they first wake up in the morning and then end the following morning. Or you could have students begin collecting from the moment they receive the trash bags from you and continue until the following day and then have them calculate their results during class. Another option would be to have students collect their wastes on a weekend so they won’t have to haul their bags around the school. There are pros and cons to each option, but because this exercise is somewhat personal, it may be best to have students categorize and document their wastes at home. Alternately, you could provide them with the time and space to complete their eco-audit in class. However, also be prepared for students who forget to bring a scale or who do not have a scale at home.
  • Find out if there are any restrictions students need to know about related to the trash they carry around all day. For example, some districts prohibit glass containers on a school bus. These restrictions may impact your decision about when to have students conduct the activity.
  • Consider giving students double-layered trash bags (one trash bag inside of another) for carrying their trash; this will help prevent ripping, as they will be carrying it all day.
  • It’s a good idea to prepare parents for this activity with an e-mail or note you send home just prior to the activity. See the Personal Waste Eco-Audit: Sample Parent Letter for an example.
Materials needed

(Per student)

  • Bathroom scale (bring one to classroom for students who don’t have at home)
  • 2 large trash bags
  • Protective gloves (rubber or latex)
  • 2 containers for sorting food wastes (one for compostable items and one for noncompostables)
Key vocabulary
consumption, consumerism, audit, compost, recycling, electronic waste, e-waste
Safety information

Be certain that all students understand that they are not to collect “dirty” trash (e.g., toilet paper, used tissues, etc.) or other materials that could be hazardous to their health. To prevent possible cuts or other injuries, make sure students are careful with fragile trash such as glass containers.

Session 1: Waste Adds Up!
Time Exercise Description
30 min. Discussion Introduce the purpose of the personal waste eco-audit, go over the assignments and timeline, and review safety protocols.
Between Classes: Personal Waste Eco-Audit
Time Exercise Description
24 hr. Waste Collection Students collect, analyze, and weigh personal waste collected over the course of 24 hours.
Session 2: Processing Eco-Audit Results
Time Exercise Description
5 min. Discussion Discuss whether students were surprised by their results.
35 min. Fine-Tune Results Students refine and complete their worksheets.
10 min. Final Discussion Encourage reflective discussion.

Session 1: Waste Adds Up!

  1. Ask students if they have any idea how much trash they produce each day. Suggest they show you with their arms, and ask them to share with you an estimate of how much the waste would weigh.

  2. Explain that, according to a World Bank report from 2012, a typical person in a developed country produces about 1.2 kg (2.6 lb.) of garbage per day. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the average American produced nearly 2.0 kg (4.4 lb.) of trash each day in 2013. That waste adds up! For example, according to the Handy Science Answer Book, Americans throw away

    • enough aluminum every three months to rebuild all the commercial airplanes in America
    • enough tires each year to circle Earth almost three times
    • about 18 billion disposable diapers each year, enough to reach to the moon and back seven times if connected end to end
  3. Tell students that much of the waste people are producing around the world today could be reused or recycled, but instead it is ending up in landfills or dumps. Generate discussion about recycling. Ask volunteers to share information about whether they recycle and if so, how well they understand what can and cannot be recycled. If students do not recycle, encourage volunteers to share some of the reasons they haven’t adopted that practice.

  4. Then encourage discussion about what happens to old electronics. Explain that e-waste is presenting new concerns about waste management on a scale that previous generations have not faced. In many parts of the world, teens are spending many hours per day using electronics. These computers, laptops, tablets, cell phones, and game and music players are upgraded regularly, making older versions obsolete. The United Nations Telecom Agency reported that by the end of 2011 there were about six billion cell phones in the world—enough phones for approximately 86 out of every 100 people to have one.

  5. Students may be interested to know that Gartner, Inc., the world’s leading information technology research and advisory company, predicts that 316 million computers and nearly 2 billion cell phones will be produced in 2015. In the year 2014, over 41.8 million metric tons (46.1 million tons) of electronic waste—mostly refrigerators, washing machines, and other electronic appliances—were sent to landfills. That amount is equivalent to 1.15 million heavy trucks forming a line 23,000 km (14,290 mi.) long.

  6. Explain that most electronic waste contains toxic heavy metals that are not disposed of correctly. E-waste is also one of the fastest growing waste streams globally and is expected to reach 75 million metric tons (83 million tons) in 2015. In most countries, much of that e-waste ends up in landfills, though some is recycled, often by people in developing countries where there are no laws to protect their safety.

  7. Then tell students that because humans produce all this solid waste, it is our responsibility to deal with it in safe, cost-effective, and environmentally sensitive ways. Many people never think about what happens to the waste they produce. The more we pay attention, the better stewards of the environment we can be. Explain that in this lesson they will get a basic idea about how much waste they produce so they can start building that awareness.

  8. Hand out the Personal Waste Eco-Audit Worksheet, and point out that the worksheet includes two parts—one for auditing regular waste and one for auditing e-waste—and that both parts include datasheets for the students to complete. Decide as a class whether students will record their data in kilograms or pounds, explaining that if everyone uses the same units, it will be easier to compare results later.

  9. Encourage students to talk a little bit about how they think their own production of trash compares to the per-person average listed on page 1 of the worksheet. Then specify for them the time period during which they will need to collect waste.

Between Classes: Personal Waste Eco-Audit

Students collect, analyze, and weigh personal waste collected over the course of 24 hours.

Session 2: Processing Eco-Audit Results

  1. When students return to class after the 24-hour waste-collection period is over, ask them to raise a hand if they correctly estimated how much waste they actually produced in a given day.

  2. Have students work independently, with a partner, or in small groups to fill in any sections of the worksheet they have not yet completed.

  3. Circulate to check student progress, ensure students are calculating correctly, and provide extensions, as necessary. If a student did not have access to a scale, provide him or her access to a scale, and give him or her time to fill in the datasheet.

  4. While you are walking around, document each student’s personal daily waste production on a notepad. Then total the class percentages and, without singling out any one student’s total, share the average total waste production with the class. Explain that because the amount of waste we generate varies from day to day, this classroom average is probably a closer approximation of each student’s actual daily waste production than the number they calculated.

  5. Call for volunteers to share their answers to the questions on the worksheet.

  6. Conclude the class with a final discussion. Ask: Has this experience made you more aware of how much and what you throw away? Explain. What actions do you plan to take to change your waste habits?

Reflection Questions

Use the following questions to prompt critical thinking and guide students to reflect about the lesson:

  • Imagine that everyone in your community recycled and composted. How would that impact waste management for better and worse? (Sample answer: The companies that run landfills would likely suffer economic losses. However, they may be able to shift to more sustainable operations, such as recycling. We would get more out of the materials we use and would move closer to being a zero-waste society.)
  • What do you think businesses, governments, and individuals could do to be more responsible about electronic wastes? (Sample answer: Businesses could offer buyback programs so consumers could return outdated or broken items; governments could write laws to better protect people handling e-wastes and to force businesses to have electronics buyback and recycling programs; individuals could avoid putting electronic products in the trash and could instead find a way to recycle or reuse them.)
  • Do you agree or disagree with this statement: “Humans should be responsible for the solid waste they produce and look for ways to deal with it safely, cost-effectively, and sustainably”? (Accept all well-reasoned answers.)
Assessment Opportunities

You can assess students’ completed Personal Waste Audit Worksheets for a grade. You can also assign any of the Extension projects (located in the Extend tab) to assess students’ understanding of the topic.

Standards assessment

This lesson, with all components included, is linked to the following standards:

Common Core State Standards (CCSS):
7th Grade: W.7.1a–e, W.7.2a–f, W.7.4–7.8, W.7.10, SL.7.1a–d, SL.7.2–7.6, L.7.1a–c, L.7.2a–b, L.7.3a, L.7.5a–c, L.7.6.
8th Grade: W.8.1a–e, W.8.2a–f, W.8.4–8.8, W.8.10, SL.8.1a–d, SL.8.2–8.6, L.8.1a–d, L.8.2a–c, L.8.3a, L.8.5a–c, L.8.6

Cloud Education for Sustainability (EfS) Standards & Performance Indicators: 
Grades 3–12:
B1, B7–13, C1, C3, C4, C18, C22, C23, C28, C29, C37, D4, D5, D7, E3, E4, F6, F7e, G1–9, G20, H2, H7, H9, H11, I27, I28, I34, I37, I38

Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills (TEKS):

5th Grade: §112.16.b.1B, §112.16.b.2A, §112.16.b.2B, §112.16.b.2C, §112.16.b.2D, §112.16.b.2E, §112.16.b.2F, §112.16.b.4A
6th Grade: §112.18.b.1.B, §112.18.b.2.A, §112.18.b.2.B, §112.18.b.2.C, §112.18.b.2.D, §112.18.b.2.E, §112.18.b.4A,
§112.18.b.9.A, §112.18.b.9.C
7th Grade: §112.19.b.1.B, §112.19.b.2.A, §112.19.b.2.B, §112.19.b.2.C, §112.19.b.2.D, §112.19.b.2.E, §112.19.b.4A, §112.19.b.10.B
8th Grade: §112.20.b.1.B, §112.20.b.2.A, §112.20.b.2.B, §112.20.b.2.C, §112.20.b.2.D, §112.20.b.2.E, §112.20.b.4A, §112.20.b.10.C

Estándares Secretaría de Educación Pública (México):
LIT.SE.1.1, 1.2, 1.4, 1.8, PTE.SE.2.1–2.11, PTOPCO.SE.3.1–3.6, FUL.SE.4.1–4.3, AL.PA.5.2–5.7, 5.10, 5.11
Ciencias: ACT.SE.2.4, HC.SE.3.2, 3.7, 3.8, AC.PA.4.3, 4.6

Community connections

Find a teacher at another school who is willing to do the same activity. Then have students conduct their eco-audits over the same time period. This activity would be especially interesting if you found a school in an environment different from your own, such as a school in a rural community if you are in an urban community. If possible, have students “meet” virtually via web cam, and then host a post eco-audit discussion so students can share their results. Students can compare and contrast their processes and results, and summarize the experience after the audit is complete.


Be available to help students whose math skills are weak. Double-check their addition, make sure they subtracted the weight of their waste bins, and help them calculate their percentages.

Cross disciplinary connections

Language Arts

You could challenge students to each write their own letter to their parent or custodian to explain the purpose of this activity. Students might also feel inspired to express what they learned from this activity in a creative way, such as via a poem, song, or editorial for the school newspaper.


Help students understand the importance of precise and accurate measurements in gathering mathematical/scientific data. Be sure to distinguish between precision (how close two values are to each other) and accuracy (how close a measured value is to the actual/true value). You may wish to use additional examples and graphics to explain the concepts. The following website is one of many that could help with this explanation:

Social Studies

Have students conduct research to find out the average daily waste production of someone in your city or town. Then they could gather data from other cities, towns, and countries, and analyze and compare the results. Students should investigate any dramatic differences they see to try to find out why some people in certain communities create more or less trash than people in other areas.

Cultural adaptation notes

Some cultures are very sensitive about how waste should be handled. Try to watch for any students who show discomfort about this activity. Their family attitudes or religious beliefs may make this activity difficult. These students can, if necessary, learn by listening to class discussions rather than by participating in a hands-on way.


You could tally students’ results electronically using an online application such as Google Docs or have students anonymously post their daily waste production totals using an online bulletin board such as Padlet.

Professional Development Opportunities

Looking for support? EcoRise offers relevant, engaging, year-round professional development and can connect you to active networks of veteran teachers and green professionals. We also provide access to grant opportunities to help fund your students' campus sustainability projects. You can learn more at