How to improve sustainability in schools

Schoolkids putting bottles in recycle container at desk.

Learn how teachers and administrators can add value to students’ lives by improving sustainability in schools and integrating eco-friendly tactics in classrooms.

If you are looking to create a more eco-friendly classroom, the first step is to reduce waste. By replacing disposable paper and plastic with recyclable and reusable materials, you can make your classroom greener in a wide variety of ways and inspire your students to adopt a zero-waste mindset.

Once you’ve gotten yourself and your students into the daily habits of using less paper, you will find it much easier to expand your efforts into more ambitious green projects. For example, you might consider tackling rain collection, composting, or even installing solar panels.

The best place to start, though, is by focusing on a few small changes your entire school can adopt. Let’s take a look at a few easy-to-implement examples.

Sustainability tips for schools

One great starting point is simply to laminate less. While it may be hard for any teacher to imagine life without lamination, the process creates more waste than we often realize. Laminated printouts tend to get thrown away over time, dumping plastic waste into the ecosystem, only to be replaced by more laminated materials. As an alternative, try gluing printouts to cardboard from cereal boxes — which is recyclable and also lasts longer.

A classroom party provides all kinds of opportunities to reduce waste. Colorful bed sheets can make perfect replacements for disposable tablecloths. Reusable forks, knives, spoons, cups and plates can all help you cut down on plastic and Styrofoam waste. Serving food that doesn’t require dishware can eliminate the need for many of those items, too. And when it’s time for gifts, colorful recyclable bags make a great replacement for wrapping paper.

Small changes to a few of your day-to-day activities can also help make your classroom greener. Instead of using glue that comes in plastic bottles and sticks, try out some arts-and-crafts projects that use biodegradable materials like cardboard and yarn. Recyclables like egg cartons, cardboard boxes, paper bags and bottles can all become beautiful zero-waste artwork. It is also easy to make cleanup more eco-friendly, by using organic or herbal cleaning solutions, and replacing disposable wipes with reusable washcloths.

As your students get into the spirit of creating a green-friendly classroom, they are certain to spot opportunities you have missed — so be sure to encourage and celebrate their own ideas for cutting down on paper and plastic. Along the way, you may decide you are ready to take on some more exciting projects. One excellent idea is to create a class garden. You might even consider starting an environmental action club, to spread the word about sustainability, and organize eco-friendly activities around your school and neighborhood.

Create school sustainability plans

Although your classroom can serve as the perfect testing ground for green-friendly practices, a truly sustainable school requires collaboration among teachers, students, and administrators, within a cooperative framework powered by a shared vision. But while organizational change takes time, you and your students can help inspire a more environmentally aware mindset by modeling the changes you want to see, with some small pilot projects.

A rainwater collection system is a superb hands-on starter project. Just place a barrel or bucket under a downspout on your school’s roof, and add a funnel or pipe to channel rain runoff into the container. (You may also want to add a spigot near the bottom of your container, so you can attach a hose.) Place a screen mesh over the container’s top to keep out leaves and insects, then wait for rain to fill it up. While your collected rainwater won’t be drinkable, it will be perfect for watering lawns and gardens — cutting down on your school’s environmental impact.

For a more advanced class project, consider building a rotating compost barrel. This assignment takes a bit more know-how than a rain collection system: it consists of a ventilated barrel that rotates atop four small wheels mounted on a wooden frame. If your class is up to the challenge, this project can provide a powerful lesson in planning and teamwork — and what’s more, your compost barrel can serve as a component of a school composting program, giving your students a sense of pride in having built a device the whole school uses.

As you continue to raise school-wide support for sustainability, you may also want to pitch the idea of installing solar panels. A large number of states now offer grants, tax rebates and zero-interest loans to schools that go solar. The U.S. Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) also provide solar funding earmarked specifically for K-12 schools. Plus, solar panels will significantly reduce your school’s electric bills — effectively paying for themselves within just a few years.

How does Adobe help schools become more sustainable?

You can start your journey toward zero waste today, simply by using digital documents in place of paper ones. Many of your students got used to completing assignments digitally over the past year — so why not stick with that model in the classroom? Adobe Scan makes it easy to create multi-page digital worksheets from paper printouts, and for your students to scan and submit their handwritten work with a phone camera.

Digital documents and workflows can significantly reduce waste throughout your school. For example, Adobe Sign streamlines the admission process, by making it simple to digitize parental consent forms and liability waivers. Parents can e-sign these forms from home, on any device — cutting down not only on wasted time and paper, but also on the ecological impact of countless car trips to and from school.

Even small improvements like these can lead to big results. For every 1,000 students transitioned to digital forms and signatures, schools save an average of 1,530 gallons of water, 533 pounds of wood, 534 kilowatt-hours of energy, 84 pounds of waste, and 1,287 pounds of carbon dioxide. You can calculate your own school’s potential savings with Adobe’s easy-to-use Savings Calculator.

Over time, your school’s progress toward full-scale digital transformation can deliver even more powerful results. For example, a growing number of schools are replacing their paper health records with secure digital student health databases, completely eliminating a massive source of paper waste.

Every step away from paper represents a step toward a greener future — and we want to do everything we can to support you on that journey. Visit the Adobe for Academics website, and our Education Resource Hub, to find out more about how small changes can help make your school a model of sustainability.