Whittier Elementary School: Lunchroom Waste Audit

  • Project Type: Path to Net Zero, Indoor Environmental Quality, Waste Reduction
  • Students: 45
  • Staff: 5
  • Mentor: John Mlade, Wight & Co.
  • Location: Downers Grove, IL
  • Grade Level: 5th Grade

Winner: Creative Use of Resources Award

Whittier's project was recognized with the Creative Use of Resources award by the panel of Illinois Green Schools Project reviewers.

The Project

Whittier's 5th grade classes participated in a lunch room waste audit on 3/13/23. The kids sorted all the lunchroom garbage into categories and weighed it. They discussed what was wasted, potential recycling options and ways to improve. The activity was led by the Scarce non-profit organization.

Whittier Elementary received an Illinois Green Schools Project Mini-Grant, which was used to pay for the non-profit organization Scarce to conduct a 2 hour lunch room waste audit. They also provided on-site education and results. Whittier also used a portion for supplies (tarps, gloves etc.) and development of mini montage.

It was identified at Whittier School that even though a process was already set into place to discard liquids during the lunch period, the milk cartons were not being recycled. The Green Team at Whittier decided it would be interesting to do a lunchroom waste audit to see how they could improve. This was a hands-on activity that involved the 5th grade classes (~45 children). With the help of the Scarce non-profit organization they set up tarps in the gym with sorting stations. Then, they dumped all the lunchroom garbage in the middle and the kids sorted into whole organic (full sandwiches, whole fruits etc.), partial organic (food scraps), plastics, landfill, metals and paper/cardboard.

The students divided the garbage into each category and then it was weighed. Then, they weighed each category and discussed what they found interesting about the results (a lot of whole sandwiches and fruit thrown away!) and what ideas they had for improving and reducing waste. The 5th grade teachers (Mrs. Lyons & Mrs. Hodowski), the director of buildings and grounds (Kevin Barto) also assisted.


Waste Audit Results

Whole Organics 8 lbs 22%
Partial Organics 15 lbs 43%
Landfill 7 lbs 19%
Liquid Waste 2 lbs 5.5%
Milk Cartons 1.5 lbs 4%
Minerals & Ores (Aluminum Foil) 0.5 lbs 1.3%
Petroleum 1 lb 2.7%
Paper Products 1 lb 2.7%

The Process:

The Whittier Green Team initially met with Principle Krugman and Kevin Barto (Director of buildings and grounds) We were discussing Whittier's recycling and realized that unfortunately our school's waste removal service was only recycling paper/cardboard and would not accept milk cartons. The Green Team got permission to do a lunchroom audit with the 5th grade students. After the audit discussion took place on areas of improvement.


Instead of just being given a list of what can and can't be recycled, the students learned hands-on to identify plastics numbers and had questions about chip bags, plastic bags and yogurt tops. They found out that many yogurt foil tops could not be recycled because even though they looked like foil there is a thin plastic liner. They also witnessed how much food is wasted on a daily basis. When weighed and tallied, it also led to how much garbage removal cost ant the less weight the better!


The students were very surprised about how much whole food was wasted. They also realized that there are only ~ 30 milk cartons/day. Based on the results the kids came up with ideas to reduce waste. For example, they said they could tell their parents to just pack half a sandwich, take home what they don't eat for a snack later, use reusable containers instead of plastic bags etc.


The project was shared in the Whittier Weekly email with parents to increase awareness of their efforts.


What’s Next:

In the future, the Green Team hopes to investigate composting, potentially implement a "Waste Free Wednesdays" where kids try their best to pack reusable containers and bring home messaging to their parents on what they could do better to help reduce food waste. Whittier also hopes to renegotiate the waste hauler contract to include recycling milk cartons. The 5th graders will help lead the charge and get the entire school involved.