Building sustainable schools through zero waste programs

Seven Generations Ahead works with local government, community, and private sector leaders to help communities make the changes they need to build a healthy and sustainable future.

Seven Generations Ahead (SGA) is a nonprofit serving their community by educating, supporting, and helping private sector leaders, local government, and educators “build a healthy and sustainable future.”

One of the programs they offer is Zero Waste, which guides schools in finding solutions to reduce the amount of waste in our landfills. Building a zero waste future begins with the next generation — SGA puts the power into the hands of children to reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover.

“It’s a chance for students to be engaged in their school,” says Susan Casey, the Zero Waste Schools Program Manager.


At lunch, children become Zero Waste Ambassadors (ZWAs), whose role is to monitor the cleanup after lunch to ensure that trash and recyclables such as milk and juice cartons are put into the appropriate bins.

group of high schoolers look into camera Through this program, SGA educates and empowers students to use their knowledge in their schools and in their communities. (Photo: Seven Generations Ahead)

“Younger elementary students get so excited about lunchroom jobs,” says Casey. That excitement translates to large reductions in what school lunchrooms send to landfills.

Nettelhorst Elementary School, a Chicago public school, was able to cut down their trash volume by 83% and reduced the number of landfill waste bags from 12 full bags to 4 half-full bags.

Use only what you need

Other problems lie in the excess of unused items that students throw away. At Oak Park 97, Casey began asking students to identify the problem to find the solution: “What is keeping the school from getting to zero? And that’s when we found the spork packet,” Casey explains.

According to the UN Environment, single-use plastics (such as spork packets) account for 50% of the 300 million tons of plastic waste hitting landfills each year. The school’s solution began in the fall of 2018 with students unbundling the packets containing a spork, napkin, and straw to become single serve items.

kids separate trash in a school Besides helping the school get close to zero waste, the program has empowered students to apply what they’re learning in school to their homes and communities. (Photo: Seven Generations Ahead)

This encouraged students to take and use only what they needed. Within two months, 63,000 individual plastic sporks were used district-wide, which meant that just as many plastic bags were prevented from hitting landfills.

Give back to the environment

Making the food system less wasteful through food recovery is another area that the SGA focuses on. Some schools have a share table, where students can put untouched food items that have a factory seal (if they’re processed) or untorn peel (if they’re fresh foods) on a ‘donation table."

“It can reduce the amount of perfectly good food going into landfills,” Casey says.

The other side to preventing food waste is finding a solution to reuse instead of simply throwing it away. SGA is one of the founding members of the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition, which helps schools prevent food waste through composting initiatives.

“In many areas it isn’t an option yet, so we help them connect with resources, such as a hauler, to see if they can add commercial composting,” Casey explains.

elementary school children conduct a waste audit Nettelhorst students conduct a waste audit. (Photo: Seven Generations Ahead)

In the best cases, students can see it come full circle with their food waste being turned into compost that can then be used in their school gardens. The reason for promoting zero waste is also tied into the educational programs at schools.

“I teach about climate change and how composting is one of the easiest ways we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (landfills produce 20% of US methane emissions; methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas). I think it's really important for students to know what they can do in their own lives to take action on climate change and feel empowered to teach others,” Casey says.

Teach others

The biggest takeaway is that students not only have the skills to live a zero waste lifestyle, but also the skills to educate older generations who didn’t have these sort of programs when they were growing up.

“Those students are practicing that every day at school and then they’re able to bring that home, encouraging [others] to make those changes in their families," says Casey.

Lindsay Christinee Williams headshot

Lindsay Christinee is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and screenwriter with a passion for sustainability, wellness, and the entertainment industry. Her work has been featured in The Marketplace, Thailand Tatler, and Fashion Weekly.

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