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The Recycle More Minnesota toolkit for your school


The purpose of this toolkit is to help schools get a recycling program organized and operating successfully.

Why should your school start a recycling program?

  • Save money. As you reduce waste and increase recycling, you’ll need to “right-size” your dumpsters and collection frequency. Often, this “right-sizing” process is where districts can see substantial savings. This is because the State of Minnesota requires waste haulers to add taxes or charges to the waste bill, but recycling and composting are exempt from these charges. Read more about the solid waste tax (PDF).

  • Meet regulations. The Waste Management Act requires that public entities have containers for at least three recyclable materials, such as paper, glass, plastic and metal, and transfer all recyclable materials collected to a recycler (Minn. Stat. 115A.151).

  • Do the right thing. By choosing to recycle, we reduce fossil fuel demand, create jobs in Minnesota, conserve natural resources and benefit the environment in many ways. Great news for Minnesota's citizens, businesses and wildlife!

How to create a successful recycling program at your school

If you are ready to start a recycling program, or improve your existing program, we recommend the following steps and resources. Come back to this page regularly to check your progress and download resources.

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Gain support from decision-makers

A successful recycling program at your school needs support from the decision-makers. At a school, the decision-makers are often the superintendent, principal, school board, or facility managers. To gain their support, set a meeting to share:
(1) the benefits of a recycling program,
(2) examples of what other schools have done, and
(3) your enthusiasm for the project.

Below is a video about District 197 and the work they did to gain management support in their high school and, eventually, district.


You can use case studies of other schools' successful programs as support for your own initiatives; visit our Case Studies page for examples. You can also explain the steps in this toolkit and use them as a work plan for your team.

Form a recycling team

Your recycling team is a small group of people who will collect data, design the recycling program, and teach students and staff how the new system works. Within this team you’ll need to identify a champion. This person facilitates the entire process and communicates progress and challenges to the decision-makers. Below is a list of people to invite. Aim for a team of at least 4-5 people, including a custodial or kitchen staff person.

  • School administrator
  • School procurement or business official
  • A staff person from the county solid waste office
  • Custodial / maintenance staff
  • Kitchen / food service staff
  • Interested teachers
  • Community education coordinator
  • Student Council or student environmental group representative
  • Parents or community members
  • Leaders of other environmental efforts happening at your schools

When the team is established, hold a first meeting that includes a discussion with your county solid waste officer/county recycling coordinator to talk about local waste management programs and resources.

In this video, learn how Transfiguration School and Church (Oakdale) formed their recycling team:


Find your county recycling coordinator at Recycle More Minnesota's "WHERE" page.

Other environmental efforts that might be happening at your school

Get a handle on the current situation

Your team’s first task is to get a handle on the current waste and recycling situation at your school. The typical composition of school waste in Minnesota is well-described in the MPCA's School Waste Composition Study, linked below. This study included a detailed sort of garbage and recycling from six schools. Your school should not need to do their own waste sort, unless you feel you have a unique situation. Instead, you should:

Conduct a building walk-through. A building walk-through can help identify types of materials to target for reduction and recycling and is done to help you anticipate your needs. You’ll record information about where waste is produced, where the bins are, and how many bins are in use. Use the data collection sheet below for your building walk-through.

Start tracking the weight or volume of your garbage and recycling. You can learn about your current waste amounts through records or by directly looking at, weighing, or measuring the trash. Choose one of the suggested formats and data collection sheets, linked below.


School Waste Composition Study
Web link | Download PDF

Building walk-through worksheet
Download file (Microsoft Word format)

How to track waste and recycling
Download file (PDF format)

Waste and recycling tracking worksheet
Download file (Microsoft Excel format)

Another data tracking option: Your school may also be able to track waste and recycling costs through data management systems such as TIES, the Uniform Financial Accounting and Financial System (UFARS), or through your waste and recycling hauler(s). If your school uses these systems, investigate their ability to track waste data, too.

And last, a student involvement option: Project Learning Tree has an investigation activity that students can complete and present to the principal or school board.

Investigate current waste contract

At the same time that you are doing the prior step, you can start learning about your current waste contract.

As you reduce waste and increase recycling you'll need to "right-size" your dumpsters and collection frequency. Often, this "right-sizing" process is where districts can see substantial savings. Your waste contract will influence this process, so it is best to learn as much as possible about the contract.

Work with your school procurement or business official, head custodian, and administration to review the existing contract. Use the questions listed below to review your contract. If your feel like you do not have very many recycling options, contact a staff person from the county solid waste office for help (find that person at our "WHERE" page).

Between the data you collected for the previous step, the options available in your county according to your county solid waste office, and options available from your hauler, your team can discuss the types of material you want to collect for recycling. If your waste contract needs to change, you will need to negotiate with your hauler.


Questions to consider about your waste contract:

  • How often is trash and recycling currently picked up?
  • Are your dumpsters full when they are picked up?
  • What kinds of recycling materials are being picked up?
  • What kinds of recycling materials would you like to be picked up?
  • Can you negotiate changes, if needed, without penalty?
  • When does your current contract expire?
  • Can your hauler provide any data about what they pick up at your sites (e.g. weights)?

For some schools, a Resource Management Contract may be something to discuss with the hauler. A Resource Management Contract places value on resource conservation services rather than on disposal volume. For more information about this type of contract, contact your county solid waste office or MPCA.

Download Resource Management RFP ("request for proposal") and Contract templates from MPCA's Resource Management Programs page.

Design your recycling program

It's finally time to design your recycling program! At this stage you should know what you plan to collect. Cardboard, mixed paper, bottles, cans and food waste are common items to collect in schools. Your plan will depend on your unique location and circumstances.

First, plan for bins and labels. Their size, shape and location matter! Visit our Best Practices webpage, which describes how to:

  • Choose appropriate containers
  • Use clear, simple labels and posters
  • Make it convenient
  • Be consistent

Also, the resource section below includes information on:

  • How to pilot test your bins and signs
  • Options for bins, labels, and posters

At this time, the question of budget often comes up. The direct costs associated with a recycling program should have a short payback time. The greatest one-time capital cost for a district recycling effort will probably be the acquisition of containers for collection of recyclable materials. The savings will come when you "right-size" your collection containers and pick-up frequency.

Second, design the logistics. Who will handle your recyclables? How often will bins be emptied? Where will recyclables be stored? Are there opportunities to involve students in the process? How will you monitor your progress? Use the recycling plan template, below, to step you through the process.

Last, set a goal. Compared to your baseline, do you want to increase the recycling rate by 20%? Decrease trash volume by 30%? Reaching this goal will depend on education and expectations for participation. The Recycling Plan template below will guide you through some of these considerations.


Recycle More Minnesota's "Best practices" for recycling bins and labels page

Recycling plan template
Download file (Microsoft Word format)

How to pilot test your bins and signs:

  1. Make one complete recycling and trash station. Co-locate recycling bins next to trash cans.
  2. Provide several students and employees with a bag of recyclables to sort. Watch for assumptions, questions, and difficulties they may have. Invite them to give you feed back.
  3. Make improvements based on the experience.
  4. Make final decisions about bins and signs.

Options for bin labels and posters:

  • Download free standardized recycling labels from the Recycling Association of Minnesota.
  • Contact your local county solid waste office for labels specific to your county. Hennepin County has some good examples.
  • Contact your hauler. They may have signs, or may be willing to help you purchase some.
  • Have students make posters to post above bins in key locations. Be sure the posters are consistent with the labels on each bin.
  • Make your own labels. Clip art for labels can be downloaded from the RMM Media Toolkit.

Options for bins:

  • Contact your local county solid waste office to see if they have a recycling bin program or know of a recycling bin program you can participate in.
  • Ask your recycling hauler if they provide bins or grants.
  • Talk to your bottling and soft drink beverage vendor to see if they will provide collection bins or boxes as part of the contract to sell their products in your facilities.
  • Apply for the Coca-Cola Company and Keep America Beautiful bin grant program.
  • Become a member of the state's Cooperative Purchasing Venture, where you can purchase containers at a bulk rate and save money.
  • The Recycling Association of Minnesota (RAM) sells bottle-shaped bins. RAM does ask that you make a minimum order of 10 bottles, due to shipping costs.
  • If money is tight, sturdy cardboard boxes can serve as free alternatives.
  • Design and build your own containers as class projects.
  • Ask a local business or service club to donate the materials (or bins) to the school district.

Consider a food waste or organics collection program

A quarter of the waste produced at a school, by weight, is food waste -- and a whopping 50% of the waste produced at a school is compostable!

This sizable portion of the waste stream deserves special consideration. Talk with your county recycling coordinator to learn about options for food-to-livestock and composting programs in your area.

View "How to Turn Elephants into Pigs": Cafeteria Food Waste Recycling (from Ramsey County and Saint Paul Public Schools)


Find your county recycling coordinator at our "WHERE" page.

Kick-off and educate others about your program

Tell people what to recycle and where!

Set expectations that everyone participates, including supervisors, staff, coaches, and students. If custodial staff were not a part of your recycling team, take extra time to educate them about the new system.

Make an education plan and write it down in your recycling plan. A recycling plan template is available in the Resources section of the "Design your recycling program" step, above. Some education ideas include:

  • Present the new recycling system at a school assembly
  • Make a recycling guide for teachers
  • Have older students visit younger students and teach them about the benefits of recycling and how to sort
  • Present information in school newsletters and in school announcements
  • Add information about recycling to the school website
  • Use existing -- or create your own -- lesson plans about waste and recycling in the classroom
  • Email listserv communications to parents
  • Have students create educational posters
  • Give a presentation to the school board or PTA

Sample education packet (Spring Lake Park schools)
Download file (PDF format)

Track your progress and make improvements

When you design your recycling program, make sure you have a plan to track your progress. Measure how the total trash and recycling volumes/weights are changing. Make observations about contamination and problem areas.

If needed, improve your program by replacing bin signs, informally surveying program participants to understand existing issues, or moving/adding bins in problem areas.


How to increase participation in your program:

  • Give feedback. Let people know how they are doing. How many pounds of recycling were collected last week? How many cans were recycled? Post this information at the bins or publish in weekly newsletters.
  • Get a commitment. During your recycling program kick-off, provide a way for people to publically commit to recycling. Create a giant poster to sign. Take and post pictures of people with their reasons for recycling written on a white board. Give a prize or incentive to people who commit.

Visit the Community-Based Social Marketing website for ideas and research on how to increase sustainable behavior.

Adjust your garbage collection process

Adjusting your garbage collection process is an important part of your recycling program! If you can reduce the size of the dumpster you need, or the frequency of its pick-up, you will save money.

Use the information you gathered during the “Get a handle on your current situation” step to guide you through this step. Review your waste and recycling tracking sheets and assess whether your current trash and recycling dumpsters are meeting your program needs. Using your waste and recycling tracking sheet, ask the following questions:

  • How often are your trash dumpsters serviced? Are they full each time they are serviced? If not, ask your hauler to reduce the frequency of pickup OR to reduce the size of the dumpster(s). Many schools have excess trash dumpster capacity and pay more for trash than they need to.
  • How often are your recycling carts or dumpsters serviced? Are they full each time they are serviced? Are they ever full a day or two (or more) before they are serviced? If your recycling carts or dumpsters seem to fill up quickly, ask your hauler to increase the size or number of recycling carts or dumpsters or ask them to increase the frequency of pickup. Many schools fill their recycling containers early in the week, leaving no room for the recyclables collected the rest of the week.

Schedule a meeting with the person who handles your garbage collection contract (this could be a representative from your school or a person at the school district). Bring along your waste and recycling tracking sheet and the ideas you have for changes to your school’s garbage collection. After you meet with your school’s contract representative, you’ll want to schedule a meeting with your waste and recycling hauler to request the service changes and receive a price estimate. Once your hauler makes the requested service changes, continue filling out your waste and recycling tracking sheets to ensure that the changes to the collection are meeting the needs of your school.


Take a look at MPCA's Resource Management Contract resources for ideas on how to improve your garbage collection process.

If you have suggestions for resources to help schools assess and adjust their collection process, please send your ideas to [email protected].

Celebrate success!

When you’ve reached your goal -- such as doubling your recycling rate or reducing your total waste by 20% -- celebrate! Host an ice cream social or play music during passing time. Write up a one-page summary of your process and the results. Share this with the school administration, parents and community members.


If you have suggestions for fun ways to celebrate recycling successes, please send your ideas to [email protected].

Sustain your program

To ensure that a successful program continues for years down the road, your recycling team needs to help recycling become a part of the culture at your school.

  • Have school business officials track waste costs and volumes as part of monthly business
  • Include recycling duties in job descriptions of the procurement or business official, custodial / maintenance staff, and kitchen / food service staff
  • Budget for maintenance costs, such as bin replacements and staff time
  • Include recycling guidelines in the schools energy policy and/or general school policy
  • Include recycling guidelines in new student and staff orientation and training

If you have suggestions for resources to help schools sustain their recycling programs, please send your ideas to [email protected].

Beyond recycling

Consider broader sustainability goals at your schools. Can you reduce your waste by preventing it? Is your school ready to tackle energy efficiency or indoor air quality? After a successful recycling program, staff and students may be interested in addressing additional projects.

Add waste prevention and recycling to classroom activities. Let students lead the way through service learning projects that green the school campus. Minnesota has a wealth of education resources; a few are listed in the Resources section below.

After implementing their successful recycling program, the recycling team at Transfiguration School and Church (Oakdale) realized they could carry that enthusiasm into additional sustainability projects:


MPCA's Healthy Sustainable Schools Guide

National Wildlife Federation's Eco-Schools USA program

US Green Building Council's Minnesota Green Schools Coalition

Waste reduction ideas and resources:

  • Office paper reduction toolkit
  • Opt out of junk mail on behalf of the school
  • Encourage no-waste school lunches for those that bring lunch
  • Investigate replacement options for Styrofoam trays
  • Schedule recess before lunch -- the students waste less food!
  • Install a water bottle filling station to promote use of reusable water bottles

Curriculum and teaching resources: Recycle More Minnesota offers these resources to connect you with simple ideas and easy-to-understand materials, both to integrate recycling issues into your curriculum as well as to make recycling a habit in your classroom.

  • Keep America Beautiful Tools for Teachers
  • "Trash Goes To School" (Cornell University): curriculum samples and ideas on how to incorporate recycling and solid waste topics in teaching many subjects, including math, science, English, social studies, and home economics -- even includes glossaries appropriate to various grade levels
  • "MyGarbology" (NatureBridge): An interactive online game that teaches about Garbology and answers the question, "Where should my waste go?" You'll also find lessons and activities to extend your Garbology experience, from how to pack a waste-less lunch to getting the dirt on composting.
  • "Recycling Starts With You" (Scholastic): Classroom materials on paper recycling for grades 3-6 in the content areas of math, science and language arts.
  • "Wise About Waste" (Minnesota Children’s Museum): A curriculum designed to work towards meeting the Minnesota Academic Standards in the areas of science, art, language arts, social studies and math. Written for 3rd and 4th grade, but can be tailored to higher or lower grades.  
  • SEEK (Sharing Environmental Education Knowledge) Minnesota
  • MPCA Learning Resource Center
  • Minnesota Association for Environmental Education
  • Project Learning Tree Green Schools lessons

General sustainability resources:

CERTs: Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) connect you and your community members with resources to identify and implement energy efficiency and renewable energy projects

NextStep: NextStep provides information, access to resources, opportunities for networking, and inspiration on the topic of sustainable communities

Case studies

Get inspired by schools across Minnesota who are creating and expanding their recycling programs!
ISD 197 (Dakota County) successfully expanded their recycling programs to collect more materials and to include every school in the district! Read about the efforts of other schools and districts across Minnesota on our Case Studies page.

Document sharing

This toolkit contains many of the best examples and recommendations for schools in our state. However, professionals who assist schools in waste reduction and recycling projects often have additional resources to share. Recycle More Minnesota has established a "Google site" to facilitate the sharing of those resources. From photos to grant application examples and presentations, this is a place where county solid waste professionals and others who assist schools can share resources.

To upload documents and post comments you must have editing permission.To be added as a site editor, or for questions or concerns about the content of this site, please email [email protected]. See the Document Sharing page for information on how to add attachments and post comments.

Visit the Recycle More Minnesota document sharing Google site




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