22 December 2020

How schools can combat waste

In 2018, the UK government published a waste management strategy for England. It set out various targets for waste reduction and sustainability. One of these targets was that 50% of household waste should be recycled by 2020. The realisation of this target is yet to be demonstrated and published. However, the Government remains optimistic.

However, while local authorities continue to combat household waste, another public sector is being neglected. Figures indicate that the education sector only recycles around 23% of its waste.

Primary schools generate about 45kg of waste per pupil, while secondary schools produce 22kg per pupil. This totals 250,000 tonnes of waste every year.

While the figure is disappointing, it does not detract from the enthusiasm of students to utilise more sustainable practices in their schools. Many students have encouraged authorities to ensure that the environment is a priority. Recycling, composting, and litter picking are all aspects of waste management that children are helping to put into motion.

Here, we look at why waste is a problem for educational institutions, and how schools and local authorities can help combat this problem.

Wasteful spending

Education requires a lot of resources. It is unsurprising, therefore, that 70% of all education waste is made up of food, paper, and card. However, while 80% of this waste is recyclable, the reality is that only 20% of it is actually recycled.

Food waste in the education sector is particularly expensive. The price of procurement, labour, utilities, and waste management means that food waste can cost £2,100 per tonne. Over the course of a year, local authorities will dish out £250m to manage food waste.

Equally, Landfill Tax adds to an avoidable cost which schools could manage better. Estimates suggest that local authorities could save £6.4m by utilising more sustainable methods of waste management.

The problem can be tackled by both local authorities and individually at education organisations.

Sustainable schools lead the way

The Eco-School campaign has registered 52,000 schools across 67 countries. These schools follow a seven-step framework to claim a coveted green flag. The steps include forming an eco-committee of students, making an action plan, and putting that plan into motion. Some schools can compost more or grow their own fruit and vegetables on school grounds.

Meanwhile, other schools are taking more proactive measures to reduce waste. Biomass digesters are used to transform food waste into biofuel. This can then be used for heating and energy. On school grounds, this device not only reduces waste. It can also cut emissions from transporting waste to disposal facilities.

Composting is also a common practice at many schools getting to grips with sustainability. Most unavoidable waste, such as eggshells and tea bags, can be composted. Meanwhile, cooked food is better suited to wormeries. Primarily, avoiding food waste is achieved by encouraging students to eat all of their lunch.

Local authorities tackling problems

The main focus for local authorities regarding waste management is to reduce overheads and operating costs. With increasing budget restraints, new solutions are needed to combat this problem.

Avoiding landfill is an obvious option for local authorities to save money. However, school waste going to landfill may be an unavoidable consequence. Public waste services are also struggling with stripped budgets.

Single-stream waste recycling is becoming increasingly common across all sectors. And even local government offices are becoming more aware of their waste responsibilities.

Education centres can also benefit from this approach if it’s implemented by local authorities. Commercial businesses must follow stringent guidelines when it comes to waste. They must ensure that everything is done to reuse, recycle, or recover waste—in this order. It’s therefore surprising that education isn’t currently achieving the same. With recycling targets for household waste at 50%, it should be possible for the education sector to meet those targets too. Especially when education waste consists of predominantly recyclable materials.

Leading by example is the best form of education. Depriving students of the opportunity to work in an environment where sustainability is a priority is damaging. Students have a considerable enthusiasm for climate change. They understand the consequences of unsustainable practices. Schools must continue to use their platform to inspire the next generation to use waste responsibly and ensure they remain leaders in the green revolution.

Michael Taylor is general manager at Skip Hire UK.

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