The many ways we can cut waste

Seetha Anand

Nature is a great teacher. We learn about seasons, time management, systematic planning, organization and so much more from nature. Nature also teaches us not to waste! In fact, there is nothing called ‘waste’ in nature – what dies becomes fuel or food for the living. Everything living or dead complements each other. But are we learning anything from this teacher? Apparently not. About 0.1 million tonnes of municipal solid waste is generated everyday in India alone according to a report in 2018*. This is only increasing by the day contributing to landfills, toxicity and many other hazards. It has not been an easy task to spread the message of reducing waste among the citizens. As the saying goes, ‘What has not been learnt in 5 years, cannot be easily taught to 50 years olds!’ It is only when waste management becomes an inherent part of life from the school years that it will be practiced effectively. By adopting some very simple guidelines, schools can not only reduce waste but also teach their students to manage it in a significant way.

Waste inventory
The foremost thing to do in the path towards achieving zero waste is to make a waste inventory. What is the amount of biodegradable and non-degradable waste generated by the school? This should be understood in a precise and quantifiable manner. High school students can be involved in arriving at a waste inventory. Changes will not happen overnight, but such an inventory itself will go a long way in bringing about awareness. The details of this inventory can be shared in a prominent place in the school and each month the school can set a target to reduce this. In fact, if such an inventory can be done class-wise, it will create enthusiasm in each class to reduce wastage at their level.

Children often bring packaged snacks to eat in school during the short recess. Schools can insist that there be no packaged foods inside the school premises. Plastic used in packaged food either ends up in landfills, clogs drains or gets dumped in water bodies. The UN has declared plastic pollution of the oceans as a ‘planetary crisis’. Instead of harmful packaged food, which is also highly processed and laden with additives and chemicals, children can be encouraged to bring fresh fruits. The fruit peels and waste can be added to a compost pit which can yield rich manure.

One UN finding estimates per annum food wastage in India to be worth Rs.92,000 crores#. In spite of producing adequate amounts of food, 190 million Indians remain malnourished. Most of the food waste in India is still edible when it goes to the bin. Schools can ensure no food waste goes into the bins by encouraging children to take only what they need. The unavoidable waste from plates such as inedible parts can be added to the compost pit in the school.

Schools can also lay a rule that disallows single use plastic containers and food packaging materials inside the school. This too will go a long way in reducing plastic waste in school.

Handicraft classes and hobby clubs in schools often use unsustainable materials, which eventually end up as non-degradable waste. Schools can take a conscious decision to use only sustainable materials while doing craft, models and other such handwork items. These sustainable materials are not only aesthetic but also less of a burden on the planet. Choosing dried leaves and flowers over glossy beads or glitter paper, vegetable colours over chemical paints, are some examples of avoiding non-degradable waste in schools. Craft ideas using recycled materials or waste materials such as coconut shells, tetra packs, plastic bottles, paper cups, old clothes, dupattas and sarees can be taught to children. Door mats and dusters for the school can be made as a part of craft activity from recycled fabrics and used clothes. Greeting cards can be decorated using colours from dried flowers, leaves, red soil and dried vegetable peels. In fact, an entire bazaar or craft fair can be planned with waste management as the theme with displays and sales of products made from waste materials and projects on waste reduction.

Projects, exhibitions and fetes
Most schools have annual exhibitions and fetes or annual days. Students are required to submit projects, models in different subjects. The materials used to make models, prototypes, charts, etc., for these expos and projects can be consciously chosen in such a way that they do not end up as non-degradable waste. It might be a shock to see how indiscriminately plastic enters our lives in such innocent ways and becomes a burdensome waste forever on the earth.

Decorations, props and costumes
During annual days, parent-teacher meets and other functions of the school, decorations are made. The school can make a policy decision to disallow anything that would become a permanent waste on the earth. Choosing real flowers, mango leaves and paper decorations that also look ethnic and beautiful over artificial flowers and synthetic decor materials will go a long way in reducing waste.

Similarly while there is no doubt that school functions and stage events require props and costumes, they can make use of materials that do not end up as harmful waste or at least that can be re-used. Single use materials should be avoided.

There is a lot of grey water waste in schools. In the school kitchen and dining areas especially the grey water generated can be used sensibly to avoid wastage of water. There are simple ways to convert grey water into potable water. Another way to avoid wastage of water is to channelize grey water into the garden to water the plants. Children carry water bottles to school. Often, they do not finish the entire bottle and what remains goes down the drain. This can be brought to the notice of the parents and a conscious effort can be made to avoid such wastage of precious water. Children can simply take the water back, to be recycled in domestic or garden use.

Waste segregation and composting
From a very young age, children can be taught to segregate waste in schools. Each classroom can have a bin for non-degradable waste while the school can have a common compost pit where all the biodegradable waste can go. The school garden, school kitchen or individual tiffin boxes generate bio waste which can be used to compost. The rich composted manure can be used for the garden. Composting can also become part of science lessons and a project can be done by the older students.

Kitchen garden
Schools having a kitchen garden will greatly reduce waste by absorbing all the biodegradable waste. The produce from the kitchen garden if substantial will also go some way in reducing food miles and wastage arising out of that. Containers in the garden can be repurposed from used or discarded materials such as old tyres, cans, broken buckets, etc.

Blackboards vs white boards
Marker pens made of plastic are used on white boards and these end up in landfills ultimately. Blackboards and chalk are a more sustainable solution.

School stationery
Often, schools insist that books be covered in brown paper. These days the brown paper comes with plastic insulation. While this may be the trend and what is available in the market, schools can make a sensible choice by asking students to cover books with recycled or reusable paper. Sometimes notebooks still have unused pages at the end of the year. Schools can think of a way to use these pages or permit carrying forward the notebooks to the next academic year. Schools invariably generate a lot of paper waste. Written papers, printed papers, papers with drawings and paintings are all at some point discarded. These papers can be used to make papier-mâché or recycled to cover books or make interesting collages, papier-mâché products and decorations; it would avoid a lot of wastage.

Waste management projects by middle and high school students
Students at the middle school and high school level can take up some of the projects listed below. They can either do this in the school or take it up in a village, slum or gated community near the school.

  1. Flower waste management to make vegetable colours, incense and herbal powders
    Places of worship, weddings and other events generate a lot of floral waste. This can be collected and processed to be used in a variety of ways as mentioned above. This could be an ongoing project involving two or more grades in the middle and high school with the guidance of a teacher and or parent who can gather expertise in this field and share the same with the children. Various stages of this activity such as collection, segregation, drying, processing and making of different products can each be taken up by one group of students according to their age and capacity.
  2. Biogas generation
    While composting of school waste would be apt for low levels of waste generation, biogas generation can be done where there is a larger quantity of waste. Students can be taught to create a system where biodegradable waste from nearby areas can be collected and this can generate the gas required for cooking school meals.
  3. Kinetic energy
    Using the principle of energy generated from movement, simple devices like a stationary cycle, wheel, pulley, etc., can be connected to other devices such as grinders or can also be used for power generation. High school students can be given and allotted time to use these devices to fulfill the necessary tasks as and when needed.
  4. Leaf plates
    Disposable plates end up in landfills. However, if these plates can be made from biodegradable material it will reduce the amount of waste significantly. Leaf plates can be made from specific tree leaves (called as ‘Vistar aaku’ in Telugu and ‘Thaiyyal ilai’ in tamil and ‘Patravali’ in Hindi).Initially, children can make them with their hands and later the school can even procure a machine to make and sell these plates. Leaf plates and bowls can also be made using jackfruit leaves and banana leaves by younger children.
  5. Edible cutlery
    Edible cutlery can be made with wheat flour. This can be used for functions in the school when food is served for large numbers. For daily use, steel spoons can be used which the children can themselves wash and dry.
  6. Vegetable dyes
    Vegetable dyes can be made from pomegranate peels, dried marigolds and palash flowers. There is a lot of information on how to arrive at specific colours by adjusting the ingredients and proportions used. These colours can be used to dye dupattas, table cloth, etc., to be used by students and staff.
  7. Handmade soaps
    Handmade soap can be a long-term project that can be done by high school students. There is ample information available on the Internet on how to use dried flowers, leaves, herbs along with other ingredients to make natural soaps.
  8. Building a room or shed using waste materials
    Old bottles, sacks, broken grills, concrete rubbish from construction debris or demolitions can all be used to make a new building. To start with, a small structure, playhouse or shed can be planned by middle school students with the help of a teacher and perhaps a mason.
  9. Bio enzymes and other cleaning agents
    The box in this article has details on how to prepare bio enzymes using fruit peels.
  10. Solar energy
    Solar cookers can be created by high school students. Solar dehydrators and even water heaters are not difficult to create. These will reduce the wastage of electricity in the school.
  11. Water recycling plant
    Grey water from the school kitchen, hand washing points and bath water in case of boarding schools can be sent to a water treatment plant which can be created in the age-old method using sand, pebbles, coal, etc. There is ample information available on how to build such treatment tanks.

Wastage of money
It is not just material waste but also financial waste that needs to be avoided. Fundraisers for a good cause can be organized by the school with the active involvement of students. Students can perform shows, sell handmade craft items and cooked food for raising funds. This will teach them to manage money and resources without wastage.

They can even be given a certain amount to fund a project and taught how to allocate money and budget for the project. At the end of the term, students can make a presentation on how they managed the funds, how much they earned, spent and saved. This will also bring a sense of responsibility and maturity in the students.

Time management
Time is also an important resource that gets wasted! Time is precious and lost time can never be regained. While sticking to a timetable should not become stressful, punctuality, completing tasks on time and allocating time appropriately for work and pleasure is important to ensure productivity. From class 2 upwards children can be trained in this. From class 5 upwards time-bound projects can be undertaken to build this sense of time in students.

Waste management and sustainability go hand in hand as seen in the suggestions given above. This is the only way forward for a sustainable life on this planet. When things find appropriate places they have a value. When the same things are out of place, they lose their value and are considered as waste. Recycling, upcycling and reusing things are a way of finding an appropriate place and use for everything. The more we do this, the less will be the waste generated.

Make your own disinfectant

What you need
• one part jaggery (100 gms)
• Three parts fruit peels (300 gms – lemon, orange and pineapple)
• Ten parts Water (1 litre)

Take a plastic bottle (with lid) of 5 litre capacity (5 litres, since there needs to be space for the gases to move).

Add powdered jaggery into the bottle. Add finely chopped fruit peels of lemons, oranges and pineapples.

Top this with the measured water. Close it with an airtight cap. Place it away from sunlight in a warm, dry place. Release the cap and stir each day in the first week. In the second week, open and stir once each alternate day. Then stir it once every week, after the third. In about 70 to 90 days depending on the weather, you will be able to get useable enzymes. Open the cap and filter the liquid and store it in convenient bottles.

How to use
For floor cleaning, dilute this liquid in the ratio of 1 part liquid to 10 parts water. For stubborn stains or bathroom tiles, use more concentrated liquid. For using as car wash, use in a 1:20 ratio. This can also be used as a vegetable soak to remove pesticide content in vegetables.

The residue can be used as a bio fertiliser for plants.

Note: While collecting fruit peels, if you do not get the required quantity in a single day, make sure you refrigerate them or store them in a cool mud pot.

This solution is safe to be used in homes where infants move on the floor. It is free from harmful chemicals, yet effective in warding off germs due to the potency of the good bacteria present in it.

Schools can make this during SUPW (Socially Useful and Productive Work) classes and even sell it during school bazaars or fund raising events. Older children can undertake doing this in neighbouring slums on large scale and help set up self-help groups.

*Food wastage crisis in India, Clean India Journal, 12 May 2018 (

#Sustainable ways for food, entertainment and environment during the pandemic (

• Status of Municipal Solid Waste: Generation Collection Treatment and Disposal in Class I cities, CPCB April 2000.
• Manual on Municipal Solid Waste Management (first edition). Prepared by The Expert Committee constituted by the Ministry of Urban Development, The Government of India. January 2000.
• Urban Waste: Status, trends and interventions. Ravi Agarwal, Srishti, January 2001.

The author works through Ananda Foundation for Holistic and Healthy Learning and Living. To know more about the foundation and its work visit the website She can be reached at [email protected].

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