environmental problems in schools

Environmental Problems in Schools and How to Address Them

Jane Marsh - February 23, 2024

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Environmental awareness is increasing all around the world. This normalization of green thinking has formed a shift in the education system. Classes that address eco-friendliness are now present in many school curriculums. However, are these establishments practicing what they preach?

Schools affect the environment in four fundamental ways: food waste, general waste management, energy use, and water management. When these areas get neglected, they cause significant environmental issues. However, schools that adopt green practices to improve areas of concern reduce their carbon footprints. 

One can approach these obstacles with practical solutions by evaluating a school’s management of certain features. Informing staff, educators, and students of core environmental problems in schools and solutions enables community efforts to achieve sustainability.

Food Waste

An educational establishment’s inadequate food disposal impacts environmental degradation and significantly eats into a school’s budget. Studies show kids in the United States waste 50% of the food on their plates — primarily fruits and vegetables. This is significantly more than other countries, adding up to 540,000 tons of wasted food annually. 

Of course, food waste is more than simply throwing away a nutritional resource. When you dispose of uneaten products, you contribute to unnecessary transportation waste from carbon emissions. Some of the foods we purchase are outsourced from countries with environmentally destructive practices — these nations over-farm and cause soil depletion. The disposal of adequate food supports these avoidable forms of environmental degradation.

Schools can challenge food waste production by following the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) food recovery hierarchy. This method suggests limiting disposal by reducing the amount of food cooked, donating to soup kitchens, reusing excess for animal feed, donating oils for industrial use, composting, and disposing of food in the garbage as a last resort.

Educational establishments can utilize this EPA method by:

  • Creating a menu form for kids to fill out regarding the next day’s lunch
  • Developing a shared food table for uneaten goods
  • Crafting an on-site compost
  • Donating to local soup kitchens biweekly

This waste reduction method also has the potential to teach students about giving back to their community. Donating leftover food and compost ensures low-income households get their next meal. 

General Waste Management

A lack of recycling and waste management education has created a challenge for school sustainability. For instance, out of 2,000 Americans, 62% worry about recycling incorrectly — 68% think they can recycle plastic utensils, while 54% believe a greasy pizza box is recyclable.

Consider the many items students, teachers, and staff throw away daily — plastic bottles, paper, and other materials could instead be donated or reused. Adopting recycling habits can shift awareness of how resources get utilized in the classroom.  

Schools can reduce their waste and dispose of it responsibly in various ways, such as the following:

  • Craft material-specific disposal bins to inform everyone proper waste management
  • Develop a sustainability club with student presentations
  • Create mandatory waste management training for staff
  • Reduce paper use by emailing parents important documents
  • Avoid printing and routing school memos — email them instead
  • Donate extra materials to thrift stores and supply drives
  • Prioritize recycling, such as using recycled materials for art projects
  • Encourage students to use the fronts and backs of papers
  • Create an online classroom portal
  • Install motion sensor hand dryers in bathrooms

Educating students on recycling properly is the most crucial way to reduce general waste. However, you can make learning fun by holding contests to see which grades or classrooms recycle the most materials. 

The classroom can become greener by implementing environmental education and sustainable waste practices. Students like to put their knowledge to work in the real world, so including them in these processes will aid learning and community development. Sorting is also a fun practice that keeps students engaged in school.

Energy Use

Schools spend over $6 billion a year on energy — for perspective, they spend more money on energy consumption than textbooks and other teaching materials. Most of this energy use also comes from devices not conducive to learning.

Classroom electronic devices drive excess energy consumption and disrupt students’ focus. Many children retain information more adequately using a pencil and paper than a projector and a laptop. According to one study, writing by hand increased information recall, while students demonstrated a 25% increase in note-taking than those using technology.

Limiting school energy consumption can aid in deep learning, save money, and conserve the environment. To reduce energy use in schools, one should:

  • Turn off the lights more or rely on natural lighting
  • Set the thermostat to an energy-efficient temperature
  • Encourage the school community to wear weather-appropriate clothing
  • Install energy-efficient lightbulbs
  • Use the school budget to install solar panels
  • Plug devices into energy-efficient power strips
  • Upgrade cafeteria kitchen appliances for more efficient models
  • Hold class outdoors

Get students involved in energy-saving habits by assigning special jobs. These can include someone turning the lights on and off or asking a tech-savvy kid to shut down electronics at the end of the day. Doing this enables students to take ownership of their energy consumption and encourages them to continue their new practices at home.

Water Management

The United States is the third-highest water-consuming country globally, withdrawing 444,300,000,000 liters per year — much of this gets wasted. 

Households account for nearly 10,000 gallons of wasted water each year — now imagine how much water schools consume without sustainability initiatives. Excessive water consumption derives from worn toilet flappers, dripping taps, and leaky valves. To reduce unsustainable water practices, one can:

  • Place signs to remind everyone to turn off the faucet and report leaks
  • Have cleaning staff conduct weekly toilet checks
  • Check hoses and outdoor taps to ensure they’re leak-free
  • Evaluate the school’s water bill to track leaks and usage
  • Install low-flow toilets in all bathrooms — efficient models save 13,000 gallons more water than standard models
  • Install motion sensor sinks

Teachers should incorporate water conservation into classroom lessons. Students will then understand water scarcity and how to improve their water footprint.

Indoor Air Quality

IAQ became a more significant concern during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic because of how easily it spread in places like schools. It made many boards of education realize how old and outdated the HVAC and air monitoring systems were. However, this leads to air pollution indoors that impacts student health, which eventually goes outside to spread.

People spend 90% of their time indoors, meaning air quality is one of the top most influential factors in public health and pollutant control. Taking action to improve IAQ in any school building includes any of the following:

  • Hire professionals to perform building envelope and HVAC audits.
  • Schedule regular maintenance for equipment, like filters.
  • Support funding and initiatives related to healing district IAQ.
  • Invest in improved ventilation systems.
  • Create strict outdoor smoking policies to prevent secondhand exposure.
  • Choose cleaning sprays with no chemicals.

Climate-Specific Educational Resources

Many schools ignore teaching students about the climate crisis when it is one of the most essential science topics in the modern era. Without these lessons as a catalyst, students won’t know about or feel inspired to pursue environmental educational tracks in higher education, such as climate consultancy, renewable energy, or animal conservation.

What can teachers do to encourage science-based climate education? First, they can discuss with board members to obtain the right textbooks. Many glaze over the subject or dismiss anthropogenic climate change as an essential player. Doing due diligence by finding a well-balanced text is crucial.

Additionally, educators must remain fearless. Climate change is scientifically proven, yet it remains a politically contentious topic. Some parents may find it divisive and even immoral to teach these subjects, but this shouldn’t deter schools from relaying the truth about Earth’s well-being.

If students received comprehensive education in schools about the climate, it could mitigate eco-anxiety young people experience as they self-teach themselves about the planet’s health through independent research and social media exposure.


Upcoming generations are digital natives, and schools are embracing this by providing students with more technological opportunities than ever. One of the most disappointing portrayals of this are the mountains of 31 million Chromebooks that schools issued to students that ended up in landfill. E-waste is one of the most pervasive, toxic pollutants on the planet with few regulations guarding soil and waterways from their influence.

Schools must adjust their tech strategy not only to save money but to save the Earth. They must distribute computers and peripherals only when necessary, when it facilitates online learning, or if it helps less-privileged students improve digital literacy and access. Too many devices have been distributed and exploited or thrown away prematurely. Education must institute stronger mandates on proper usage and maintenance to keep them for longer.

Communication Is Key

Reaching out to staff and students can allow for environmental problems in schools to be addressed. Building a community that understands these issues will increase sustainability practices. When a community works together to create these changes, it saves the school money and conserves the environment.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.