Forming a zero waste education alliance

Published on: 
17 Nov 2021
Naomi Stern

This fall, the 2020–2021 recipients of our Leaders in Sustainability Fellowship share some of the most important work they've done over the past year.

The stakeholders supporting K–12 school waste diversion programs in government agencies, nonprofits and hauler companies understand that it takes a village to make long-lasting change. Lasting change is needed when we consider that the education sector generates a large amount of waste, most of which is compostable organics and recyclable materials that could be diverted from landfills, according to CalRecycle.

Building a network to reach zero waste goals

While a school's waste management system may appear simple at first, often there are layers of policies, franchise agreements and contracts that can slow progress toward zero waste goals. Quickly, it becomes apparent that building a strong network of support is critical for success and understanding the technical aspects of waste in a local region.

San Mateo County, in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, comprises 23 small- to medium-sized public school districts (1–20 school sites) that each have their own unique system for managing waste. To add to this complexity, there are 10 different waste haulers that serve public schools, each with its own sorting guide and best practices.

School leaders in the area who are championing waste reduction have faced challenges in creating consistency in waste sorting programs, understanding who are the right agencies to connect with and distributing zero waste materials equitably. With the emerging California state waste reduction laws AB 1826 and SB 1383 targeted at reducing organic waste in landfills to help achieve the statewide goal of a 75% waste diversion rate, schools are now required to do better, but change is slow.

Recycling and waste bins in a schoolyard

Half Moon Bay High School Classroom Landfill and Recycling Station. Photo credit: Rethink Waste.

The San Mateo County Office of Education, in partnership with the County of San Mateo Office of Sustainability, piloted the Zero Waste Education Alliance (ZWEA) in 2019 in order to bring waste education stakeholders together that support school programs. This unique alliance has brought a new level of coordination, not seen in San Mateo County before, among waste-hauling companies, the formal education system, government agencies and community-based organizations to tackle the tough problems of school waste reduction.

There are many successful networks and organizations focused on fostering collaboration between environmental education groups. There are also zero waste networks for agencies focused on residential or business waste programs. ZWEA is addressing the need for the facilitation of network groups to be done from a backbone organization embedded within the formal education system. The San Mateo County Office of Education has connections to public districts and schools, a strong sense of the operational needs of school facilities, and the ability to communicate education standards and align waste programming to them.

Staff from ZWEA partner agencies. Photo credit: The County of San Mateo Office of Sustainability.

Making progress in the most challenging times

Despite most of the work done by the ZWEA network having taken place during the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been opportunities for member agencies to discuss best practices on sorting, develop a landscape analysis of waste reduction program progress and discuss waste issues facing San Mateo County. As of 2021, there are eight member agencies representing haulers, county governmental offices and nonprofits.

Members meet quarterly for updates and discussion of big picture goals and strategies, as well as assembling for other meetings as needed. For a county with many stakeholders spread out across incorporated cities, property lines and school districts, having a central place to connect has resulted in streamlined waste education services, collaboration on programs and a central message.

One example is the development of a solid waste management guide during the pandemic that consolidated member agency resources (PPE sorting stickers, tri-bin waste station diagrams, County Health Department recommendations on food-sharing tables, etc.) into one place for school leaders and aligned with health and safety guidelines. Many more examples exist that are less measurable, but just as impactful, such as quicker response time to questions or efficient back and forth on emails to get virtual events set up. Fostering collaboration means less time navigating the solid waste management landscape, and more time engaging students and their families in waste reduction.

Find inspiration on how to create a network of waste management stakeholders in your community from the San Mateo County Office of Education on their zero waste resources page.

Find zero waste alliance resources