Suggested level:

Grades 4-6


Students will survey and analyze waste in the school cafeteria.

(Optional: Students will propose plans to reduce cafeteria waste.)


Trash Data Table

Helpful Links:

Polystyrene Packaging Council

Foodservice & Packaging Council

Reducing Cafeteria Waste

Background: School cafeterias used to provide reusable dishes and flatware. Of course, they had to be washed after each use. This method of food service has its costs. First, the school must have the space to store and funds to buy the dishes, flatware, and dishwashing equipment. Second, it must pay for the labor involved in washing and storing the dishes. Third, there's the cost of water, chemicals, and energy expended to clean and dry the items.

Many schools now use disposable items due to cost and sanitary considerations. Unseen costs include increased landfilling, use of nonrenewable resources, and the labor involved in collecting and transporting the trash and recyclables, not to mention the air pollution emitted by transport vehicles.

There's obviously a great deal of waste in school cafeterias. The question is reusable or disposable. What's the answer? Challenge the class to find ways to reduce the trash.


  1. Inform the students that they will observe the cafeteria trash habits of their peers during lunch periods for the next five days.

  2. Give each student a copy of the Data Table for collecting information. Students will keep track of what other students at their tables throw away or waste.

  3. At the end of the week, students will total the data. As an option, you might keep a master data table in the classroom for collating student data and displaying results. You might also calculate a ratio of trash items per student.


Do most students bring lunch or buy lunch, and is there any difference in waste generated by either?

What type of food is wasted the most, the least?

Is it less expensive to buy larger amounts of food or snacks and pack them in reusable containers, or to buy individual servings in disposable packages?

Kid's Site Map Grades 1-3 Grades 4-6 Teacher Ideas

Monroe County Solid Waste Management District
3400 Old State Rd. 37 South, Bloomington, IN 47401
(812) 349-2020