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Exploring School Building Data: Waste

60 minutes
Primary subjects: 
Engineering, Environmental Education, Science
Grade: 
9, 10, 11, 12
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About

This lesson uses an online building performance data platform to explore how schools create waste, the relationship between waste generation and greenhouse gas emissions, and the differences in waste management between an average school and a high-performance green school.

Key objectives for students
Explain how and why schools create waste
Explain the relationship between waste generation and sustainability
Identify the differences in waste management between an average school and a green school
Secondary subjects
Career Technical Education (CTE), Mathematics
Topics
Waste, Composting, recycling, incineration, waste management
Skills
Critical Thinking, Systems thinking
Values
Curiosity
Methods
Design Thinking, Multi-Disciplinary, Real-World Application, Technology Integration
Background information for teachers

This lesson explores how a school creates waste, the relationship between waste generation and greenhouse gas emissions, and the differences in waste management between an average school building and a high-performance school using the Arc Digital Playground. Arc is an online building sustainability management platform that tracks and analyzes five aspects of a building’s performance: water consumption, energy consumption, waste production, transportation, and human experience.

The Digital Playground is a demo version of the Arc platform, where teachers and students can learn about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts using a set of sample schools, pre-loaded with data on energy, water, waste, and other key metrics.

If you are inspired by this lesson, you can apply the same concepts and tools to understand your school data and make a difference in the real world. Arc is free for all schools and getting started is easy:

  1. Create an account or log in to find your school on ArcSkoru
  2. Organize and enter your performance data
  3. Analyze, score, and improve your school

If you want to continue engaging students in investigating and improving their school's sustainability, check out Building Learners- a full-support K-12 education program that includes curriculum, Arc, trainings for teachers, and access to a green building professional. Building Learners engages students through real world, project-based learning about environmental and human health impacts. Pairing standards-aligned, hands-on lessons about sustainability, such as this lesson, and a robust building sustainability benchmarking and tracking tool, Arc, this program uses your own school building as a laboratory to teach STEM topics as well as engage students in action projects that develop skills and knowledge that can be applied across a range of subject areas and career pathways.

No matter what grade level you teach, these lessons can be used to envision how the Building Learners program may be implemented in your classroom. We suggest for anyone interested in Building Learners review these lessons to envision using school sustainability data with your students. We additionally suggest that all 9-12 grade teachers implement these lessons in the classroom before applying for the program.

In Advance
  • We suggest that teachers try each link to ensure that student computers may access the sites and anticipate any navigation questions.
Materials needed
  • Worksheet, one per student
  • PowerPoint
  • Access to the internet
  • Computer device, one per student or one per two students
Time Exercise Description
10 minutes How does a school generate and measure solid waste?
15 minutes Where does waste go?
10 minutes What are the impacts of solid waste on climate and sustainability?
20 minutes What is the difference between a green school and an average school?
20 minutes Impacts on waste generation and diversion
Implementation

1. How does a school generate and measure solid waste?
At the beginning of class, pass out the worksheets and ask students to silently consider and list the waste that they produce during a school day. After students have finished their lists (1-2 minutes), compile student examples on the board by asking for volunteers to share their lists ( answers should include food waste, food wrappers and containers, paper, cardboard, plastic water bottles, paper towels, gum wrappers, etc.>/i>).

Once the class is satisfied with the compiled list, explain that schools generate solid waste in many forms, including paper, food (organic material), and plastic. In classrooms, waste includes plastic and scratch paper from exams, worksheets, or crafts. Most snacks and classroom products come packaged in single-use plastics. Food waste from cafeterias and classrooms is one the largest sources of school-generated waste; in some Minnesota schools, it even makes up almost a quarter of waste generated. Landscaping playgrounds and green space on school campuses also produces organic waste material, such as leaves and grass.

Ask students and discuss the following questions:

  • Do schools have an obligation to reduce their waste generation? Why or why not?
  • What do you think is the first step to reducing a school’s waste and why?

How can schools manage their solid waste? By measuring it!
The first step to any improvement project should always be to assess your current performance. If you want to run a faster mile, you first need to measure your current mile time to know how much you want to improve by. The same idea can be applied to reducing waste generation. If you want to reduce your waste generation, you must first measure how much waste you’re currently producing.

While waste is often measured by cities and counties, schools can measure waste in a variety of ways. A waste audit is a great way to understand the specific waste patterns. It involves collecting and sorting trash into separate waste streams for landfill, recycling, and composting and measuring the weight of each category to create waste diversion goals. Waste audits can even reveal opportunities for behavior-based policies to encourage proper sorting or even lead to recycling or composting programs, donation drives, and other activities to encourage conscious consumption.

Let’s now explore real data from two schools in the Digital Playground. Let’s first start with waste data from a green high school:

  1. Click here to go to the Digital Playground
  2. Click Buildings on the left panel, then My School, and then Green HighSchool
  3. Click on Credits/Actions, then Data Input, then Waste Data.

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Allow students a few minutes to navigate and explore the waste data (5-10 minutes). While they explore the platform, explain that they should be looking to answer the following questions on their worksheet:

  • What patterns do you notice about the data?
  • What does the diverted waste measurement mean? How is that different than the waste generated measurement?
  • Is it better to have a higher diverted waste measurement or a higher waste generated measurement?
  • How would you expect this data to look for the months of June, July, and August? Why?

Now let’s explore the Average High School waste data:

  1. Click here to go to the Digital Playground
  2. Click Buildings on the left panel, then My School, and then Average High School
  3. Click on Credits/Actions, then Data Input, then Waste Data.

alt text

Allow students a few minutes to navigate and explore the waste data (5-10 minutes). While they explore the platform, explain that they should be looking to answer the following questions on their worksheet:

  • How does the Average school’s waste data compare to the Green School’s waste data?
  • Why do you think these two school’s waste data are different? What actions from either school could lead to this difference?
  • Which of these schools should we use as an example of good waste management? Why?

2. Where does waste go?
What happens to waste after its use?

After students are finished exploring the school data, explain that certain objects like aluminum cans, paper, cardboard, and plastic water bottles can be recycled and used as raw material for other items. This is important because certain materials cannot be replenished as easily as others and we need to rely less on sourcing new materials and more on reusing existing materials. A growing number of clothing items, school supplies, and paper companies are committing to using recycled material as part of their supply chain.

Refer to the list you generated at the beginning of class and ask which items on the board could be recycled. Circle the items in a color that represents those items.

Another waste management strategy is composting, which involves collecting food and organic waste. The food and organic waste are converted to a substance that be used as fertilizer and nutrients for future crops. In addition to food waste, certain plastic, non-recyclable paper, and cardboard are also compostable.

Refer to list you generated at the beginning of class and ask which items on the board could be composted. Circle the items in a new color that represents those items.

  • Ask: How many items on the list remain uncircled? What can we do with this waste?

For waste that can’t be recycled or composted, another waste management strategy is to transform it into energy through incineration. Incineration takes waste material and burns it in order to extract energy, which can then be used as electricity.

However, most solid municipal waste is sent to landfills. According to the EPA, the US landfilled 52% of solid municipal waste, composted or recycled 35%, and burned about 13% in 2017.

3. What are the impacts of solid waste on climate and sustainability?
Unfortunately, waste has many negative impacts on the environment. The World Bank estimates that humans create over 2 billion tons of municipal waste annually, and at least 1/3rd of that waste is mismanaged. Impacts from something as small as local litter to something as large as landfill and ocean dumping can disrupt ecosystems and create toxic living environments.

Waste is a large contributor to climate change; impacts related to material management (resource extraction, transportation, and waste processing) represent over 40% of global emissions. Incineration and landfilled objects can also generate greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. The 33% of food production that is wasted every year contributes to emissions from waste. Even recycling plastics and papers can increase pollution.

  • TEACHING NOTE: Use the EPA WARM to analyze and compare commonly found items in classroom environment: #2 Pencils, lined paper, and recycled paper. For younger students, teachers can explore the software in front of the students and lead a classroom discussion.
    • Potential discussion questions: What environmental impacts do our pencils have? Of the two paper options, which is more “environmentally friendly”?

The oceans are also extremely vulnerable to waste, especially plastic pollution. Over 80% of the trash in the oceans is plastic waste, as measured by the Ocean Helath Index; in 2016 alone, the amount of trash generated was equivalent to the weight of 32 million blue whales. Marine animals can mistake plastics for food and choke, and microplastics (trash smaller than 5 mm) hold toxic materials leading to other health concerns to wildlife and humans if consumed.

Unfortunately, waste and its storage can also contribute to environmental racism. Low-income communities or communities of color are often located most closely to waste sites. In 1983, The U.S. Congress found that 75% of hazardous waste sites in the Southeast were near poor Black and Latino communities. While these issues clearly remain today, the environmental justice movement recognizes that all people should have access to healthy environments to live, work, and play, and is becoming an important focus of current climate initiatives.

  • TEACHING NOTE: Use the EPA’s tool to find the nearest superfund site to the school or school district.

4. What is the difference between a green school and an average school?
Now that we understand the impacts of waste and how waste can be diverted from the landfill, let’s consider how an average school can become a green school with its waste management.

A green school will aim to not only reduce the waste generated but also divert it’s waste by recycling and composting as much as possible. This can be achieved in many ways, such as through detailed waste sorting practices and encouraging the use of reusables, like water bottles and lunch containers.

Let’s explore each school’s waste generation analytics in the Arc Digital Playground:

  1. Click here to go to the Digital Playground
  2. Click Buildings on the left panel, then My School, and then Average HIgh School
  3. Click on Analytics, then Waste Data, and Scroll to the “Waste Generation/Diversion” section.
  4. Repeat step 2, instead clicking on Green High School, and repeat step 3.

Allow students to explore each school’s analytic data. Tell students to explore the waste generated per day/month/year per occupant as well. While students explore the data, explain that they should answer the following questions on their worksheet:

  • How does the per occupant data help illustrate the waste being generated in the school?
  • How can this data be used to improve the school’s waste generation?
  • How can you measure and compare your personal waste behavior to the occupants in the green and average high schools? How do you think your waste generation would compare to the two schools’ occupants?

  • TEACHING NOTE: Encourage students to collect their waste for one week in a plastic bag or mason jar. On a designated day, students bring their trash to school and conduct a mini-audit with their classmates. Each student measures their waste and compares the results to the two school’s waste per occupant data in the Arc Digital Playground.

5. Impacts on waste generation and diversion
Lastly, let’s explore how school waste can be impacted by school conditions:

  1. Click here to go to the Digital Playground.
  2. Click Buildings on the left panel, then My School, and then Green High School.
  3. Click on “Models” tab on the left, then choose “Waste” on the top bar.
  4. Set targets based on the classroom building level or school-wide level.

Explain that for each of the scenarios below, students will predict whether the Arc Performance score will increase or decrease, then use the model to confirm their predictions and hypotheses.

  1. If occupancy increases by 50% and waste generation and diversion stays the same, the Arc Performance Score will _____ (increase/decrease/stay the same) and the building is_________ (more/less efficient).
  2. If occupancy decreases by 50% and waste generation and diversion stays the same, the Arc Performance Score will _____ (increase/decrease/stay the same) and the building is _______________ (more/less efficient).
  3. If occupancy and waste diversion stays the same and waste generation decreases by 25%, the Arc Performance Score will _____ (increase/decrease/stay the same) and the building is _______________ (more/less efficient).
  4. If occupancy and waste generation stays the same but diversion increases by 25%, the Arc Performance Score will ___________ (increase/decrease/stay the same) and the building is ______________ (more/less efficient).
  5. If occupancy stays the same but waste generation decreases by 25% and diversion increases by 25%, the Arc Performance Score will ______________ (increase/decrease/stay the same) and the building is ________________ (more/less efficient).

As students finish the modeling section, they should answer the following questions on their worksheet:

  • How could the building improve their score above 75? 90? Share at least 3 potential changes and what quantities you changed (it’s encouraged to keep at least one variable fixed, such as occupancy).
  • What does it take to get a perfect score? Does it require 100% waste reduction? 100% waste diversion? Both? Neither?

After the class has finished with the modeling section above, come together as a class to discuss the following questions:

  • Which is more important: limiting waste creation or increasing diversion? Why?
  • What are some ideas on an individual level to reducing waste generation and improve diversion?
  • What are some ideas on a classroom or school-wide level to reducing waste generation and improve diversion?
Additional teaching tips

With proper PPE, students can conduct a school waste audit, either in the classroom or cafeteria. Teachers should contact the school facilities manager or the local waste manager and coordinate with them to arrange for students to sort and weigh trash and record the results. Students can also host donation drives for unused electronics, toys, and recyclable materials in order to encourage waste diversion from landfill. Certain e-waste recyclers will also pay for electronic waste, making it a great way to fundraise for other classroom activities.

Find more tools to reduce waste generation in schools, host recycling activities, and move towards a zero-waste school.

Reflection Questions
  • How does a school generate and measure solid waste?
  • How can waste be sustainably managed?
  • What are the impacts of solid waste on the health of people and the environment?
  • What is the difference in waste management in a green school versus an average school?
Technology

This lesson was made for students to use their own device to explore the Arc Digital Playground. This lesson can be modified so that the teacher displays the Playground for all students to see and follow along.

In the lessons, students will use their own or shared device to navigate the Arc Digital Playground. There is no login required and students can manipulate the data within the platform without permanently editing the data.

Professional Development Opportunities

If you want to learn more about using your school data to teach sustainability and STEM concepts to students, check out the Building Learners program.

Building Learners engages students through real world, project based learning about their school's environmental impact and sustainability. Pairing standards-aligned, hands-on lessons about sustainability, such as this lesson, and a robust building sustainability benchmarking and tracking tool, Arc, this program uses your school building as a laboratory to teach STEM topics as well as engage students in action projects that develop skills and knowledge that can be applied across a range of subject areas and career pathways.

Building Learners comes with five training modules, as well as curriculum and access to a green building professional who can support a teacher's classroom work.

Think the Building Learners program would help take your work to the next level? Visit the Building Learners page to learn more.