Zero waste teacher

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As a teacher, there is never an unoccupied moment in the classroom. Most readers would not know that I am an educator who works in elementary schools and adult education teaching ESL. I am not a veteran teacher by any means, but I’ve come face-to-face with the amount of waste that comes from teaching. I feel a (un)healthy amount of guilt for every long packet I print.

As educators, our responsibility is to teach our students the best we can; this may include colored pencils, endless eraser shavings, handouts, bottled glue, and reviewing what we expected to be an easy concept for three classes after it was introduced. As educators, we all are at odds with different resources. Some schools have smart boards, class sets, and manipulables, and others have chalk boards and photocopies. Some of us don’t even teach at schools.

One of the most noticeable sources of excess and waste in teaching is paper, but at the end of the day, some of our students cannot take notes. Exact copies of what they need may better suit their needs and giving everyone a copy of questions and tasks allows them to work at their own level. Even if reducing the amount of paper we use might not be realistic for everyone, there are plenty of things we can do to reduce waste wherever we teach.


Involve your students...If you can help them understand how small choices made in individual classrooms can add up on an institutional level, you’ll be doing a lot more for the planet than you would by personally choosing one type of writing utensil over another.
— Nina Shen Rastogi, Today's Lesson: Which Is Better for the Planet, Chalk or Dry-Erase Markers?

The board

If you have the choice between chalk and dry erase markers, chalk is the more zero waste choice. Chalk often comes in minimal packaging and will result in significantly less waste than dry erase markers, which also dry up rather than visibly run out. These days, chalk is usually made from the mineral gypsum, which is also used in drywall.

Dry erase

If you don’t have a blackboard left or need to use up your dry erase markers, know that they are recyclable. The Color Cycle program dry erase markers by Crayola will accept your old markers of any brand for recycling rather than sending them to spend the rest of forever in the landfill.

Highlighters

There are a few alternatives to plastic highlighters that I know of. You can find specially-made highlighter pencils in bright colors, although specialty products aren’t necessary if you have a usable alternative. I prefer to use yellow wax crayons instead because in my classrooms they are plentiful, they come plastic-free and, unless snapped, crayons last a long time. It is worth noting that paraffin wax in crayons is derived from petroleum, but it’s not as if the demand for yellow crayons will anytime soon be funding oil companies.

Coloring

Markers are also recyclable under the Color Cycle program, but to avoid the need for the energy and resources to recycle, just skip markers when you can. There was a time without markers and children still managed to make art. Crayons and colored pencils make great tools too, so markers will hardly be missed.

Refillables

For supplies you may use like glue or paint, many schools provide some type of bulk containers that you can use to refill smaller bottles for classroom use. If not, save the small containers you have now and refill them when it’s time to order supplies. Since many teachers buy materials for their teaching with their own money, it may also be an option to split the cost for large jugs of paint or glue with another teacher.

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Staples

While this is hardly the most important thing you can do to reduce waste, there are staple-free staplers on the market that can eliminate your need for the material altogether. I received one as a gift and I like how it works. I’ve heard that staples are recyclable because they’re made of steel, although I have yet to find a source corroborating that staples are actually steel. Either way, as long as the paper is recycled, the recycling process is designed to remove staples and the like.

printing

Anyone actually reading this probably already prints double-sided, but this is a reminder that paper is not an endless resource and it is important to use it consciously. In the US as of 2013, paper has a recycling rate of about 63%, and as of that year averaged 275 pounds recycled for each person living in the US. That being said, after being recycled about five times, the fibers become too short and paper can no longer be recycled. 

Half-sheets

While we’re talking about saving paper, don’t be afraid to use half sheets. For announcements, notes home or short exercises, if a half sheet is enough space, get double the copies for half the paper. Students who need more space to write can always flip it over.

Margins

I print absolutely everything on ½ inch margins, which can make a big impact. Some programs have savable presets so that anything you make yourself is already set at smaller margins. A tip for using premade materials that you cannot edit: for PDFs I cannot edit, I zoom out, control + print screen, paste into Microsoft paint, crop, and save. Then I can add it to a worksheet along with other exercises or fit something else on the page.

Lights and electricity

Two easy things you’re probably doing at home already are turning out lights when you leave a room and unplugging things that are not in use. Classrooms don’t tend to have many devices plugged in besides pencil sharpeners and computers, but if computers are charged, unplug them; in homes, about a quarter of electricity use comes from things plugged-in that are in idle power mode, still drawing power. These plug loads in commercial buildings account for 5% of all US energy consumption.  And let’s be honest, an electric pencil sharpener is no less distracting than a manual one. Make it a habit for yourself, or your students, to turn out the lights when nobody is in the room.

Infographics

If you’re dealing with young students, something as simple as an infographic above the trash can and recycling bin can serve as a reminder as to what should and should not be recycled and trashed. This example may be more suitable for older learners, but next time you talk about recycling in class, students could participate in making a poster of their own.

textbooks

This recommendation does not apply to all educators, but if you have a good set of textbooks, use them; with my adult ed class, there is no curriculum and no textbook, so it’s not an option for me to work with exercises out of books. The advantage of using textbooks is that they can be used many times with less frequent need for more paper than printed activities. Not all text books are created equal, although using a good textbook can allow you to develop a curriculum to use years over with reusable materials.

Sheet protectors

There is something special about laminating, I know; especially with younger learners who will fold corners, rip and bend materials. When necessary and possible, try and use sheet protectors instead. They are reusable and the material inside can be changed out as topics change. Plus, they don’t require you to buy a laminator.

Smart boards

If you have a smart board of any sort, be conscious of using it, or at least turning the display off. If the board is not being used and still projecting, it is wasting electricity. As for actual electricity wasted, it totally depends on the board you’re using and how much it is being left on and unused. This teacher found that even off, their smart boards drew a plug load 10 watts and that they had a plug load of over 175 watts when on. Remember, only about 17% of electricity generated in the US is from renewable resources, so wasting electricity is wasting finite, polluting resources.

Teach!

Don’t forget that you have an opportunity to reach your students about these issues. So much as reminding them to shut off the lights can make an impact. If you have the opportunity to teach a lesson on a zero waste issue like low rates of recycling or why buying used is more ecofriendly, even better, but we don’t need to be science teachers to lead by example.


Teaching is challenging. Zero waste is unique for everyone. If you want to reduce waste in your classroom, where exactly to begin depends on what your teaching situation looks like. As with anything you want students to do, model the best behavior yourself and guide them through the process until they no longer need you. Happy teaching!