This fall, 11-year-old Maddie Cameron is on a mission. The seventh grader is going to help her schoolmates curb a litter problem on their playground.
“A lot of kids take their snacks out at recess, but there aren’t any garbage cans out there,” Maddie says. Kids are supposed to take this trash home, she explains, but some of it ends up on the ground. So she’s working with her parents, teachers, and classmates to put recycling and trash bins on the playground.
Many kids are already doing their part to protect the planet through personal choices, like bringing a reusable water bottle to school, skipping plastic straws, and putting paper scraps into the recycling bin. But scientists agree that bigger, more structural changes are needed to combat environmental crises like climate change and consumption that, according to a research article published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is sending more than 90 percent of plastics into the trash.
That’s why schools might be the next place for kids to flex their leadership muscles to save the planet: Just like an adult who rallies their community to switch to clean energy, kids can have a huge impact by pushing their schools to be cleaner and greener.
“Students talking to students, forming a club, or gaining the support of a champion adult at school truly is the best way for them to move an issue forward,” says Elizabeth Soper, senior director of K-12 education at the National Wildlife Federation. “If a student can show an adult that they have a true concern about an issue, it could be enough to gain some traction.”
Save schools, save the planet
Many schools are already taking action: Over 500 schools have pledged to reduce their carbon footprint with the Green School Alliance, and more than 5,000 schools have signed up for National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools USA program, which helps schools become more sustainable. But conservationists say much more can be done.
A report from the World Wildlife Fund estimates U.S. schools waste about 530,000 tons of food each year—about 39.2 pounds of food waste for each student every year. And that’s not only wasteful: One pound of tossed food releases about 3.8 pounds of methane, a greenhouse gas, as it rots in a landfill.
And regular old trash is a problem, too. A case study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that, separated from food waste, plastic flatware, portion bowls, wrappers, and bags made up most of the garbage in the cafeteria. And they found that this waste created even more waste: Those disposable items needed to be shipped, using more than 700 boxes a year.
But kids are in good position to lead change on these big issues, says Sarah Ward, the schoolyard and community habitats program manager at the National Wildlife Federation. “Kid-led programs may be more effective because their peers may might be more inclined to listen to their messages,” she says. “Plus, their solutions are often more creative than something an adult could come up with.”
And kids gets get an added benefit: Taking the lead on environmental issues can help kids feel less helpless and more empowered to make a difference, says Kelly Harding, a manager with the Green Schools Alliance. “By providing kids tools to take direct actions, we can help them have a sense of agency and optimism in the process.”
How kids can change school policies
Are your kids ready to shift something big at their school? Use this guide to help them tap into their eco superpower.
Help kids pick a passion. If kids aren’t sure where to start, ask them to think through their school day: Do they notice a lot of full milk cartons or foam trays being tossed? Do they see tons of recyclable paper going into a trash can instead of a recycling bin? Or, if you child is wild about animals, start there. Research the problems facing the critter and see if anything connects back to their school. For example, giant pandas are losing habitat because of climate change—can the school save energy by turning off classroom lights and technology when not in use?
Gather evidence. Show your kids reliable sources to help them collect information about the problem. If they want to curb plastic utensils at school, can they find information about how often these items wash up on the beach? Or what happens to the plastic in a landfill?
Brainstorm a solution. Kids don’t need to have everything figured out, but Ward says coming up with a suggested solution will help start the conversation. Perhaps that means asking for compostable lunch trays rather than polystyrene trays, or swapping recyclable cans in vending machines for plastic bottles. “Usually that student voice is enough to begin a process of change,” she says.
Point them to adult allies. Kids can’t change their schools’ policy on their own. That’s why Maddie’s first stop in her plan to clean up the playground will be the principal’s office. “The principal can make big changes happen because they’re in charge of the school,” she says. Kids should bring their evidence, solution, and passion when they meet their ally.
Encourage them to get their classmates on board. Help your kids recruit their friends in to their eco efforts by encouraging them to start a club. Working together, the kids will make a bigger difference and have more fun. Maybe the group can host a waste competition to see which classroom can produce the least in a week, lead a tree-planting session to offset paper use, or encourage their classmates to sign a petition.
Green their school routine
If your kid isn't quite ready to take over the school, that's OK. They can still do plenty to green their own school routine.
Cut lunch waste. Get your kids involved in planning, shopping for, and packing their lunches into reusable containers the night before school. You can cut back on plastic waste, and since kids will be more likely to finish their meal because they helped make it, you’ll cut down on food waste, too.
Be an environmental observer. If your kid is more comfortable observing than leading, ask them to pay attention to things like whether classroom lights are turned off at the end of day and during recess, or if the room has a designated a spot for recycling. After a few days, the child can then share their findings with their a teacher and ask them him to make adjustments.
Switch up your school transportation. Studies from the Global Centre for Clean Air Research show that kids face three times more air pollution during school drop-offs than at other times of the day. That’s partly because of queues of idling cars. So if driving your kids to school is more about convenience than necessity, consider swapping in a walk, bike ride, or carpool group to get your kids to school.
Harness your purchasing power. Does your kid really need a fresh set of school supplies this year? Do a deep dive into pencil bags and backpacks from previous years to see if you can find some of what you need without buying something new. Use this guide to make your back-to-school shopping more eco-friendly.
Plan an after-school eco field trip. Learning can happen beyond the classroom. Does your area have a creek nearby? Is there a forested path for a hike? A tree that’s been there forever? Helping kids recognize the natural spaces in your neighborhood can help foster appreciation for the Earth—and show them why they need to protect it.