A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

School-wide waste audit leads Millcreek Elementary students to take lead in school’s recycling program


This past August, after conducting a school-wide waste audit, Millcreek Elementary students realized they had an issue with contamination in their recycling. Items that are not recyclable in Lexington kept finding their way into each classroom’s blue recycling bins.

Students look for contaminates as they empty recycling bins.(Photo provided)

“Though their contamination rate was relatively low, the students and teachers at Millcreek Elementary take great pride in their recycling program,” said Bluegrass Greensource educator Rachel Patton. “They were personally invested in reducing the amount of trash that was in their recycling.”

Ms. Patton works with Millcreek on waste issues through a contract with the city. Under her guidance, the school’s E=USE2 Energy Club stepped forward and instituted a hands-on approach to improving the school’s recycling efforts. The club began by emptying each class’s recycling bin and sorting out the contaminated items. Students would then tape a hand-written note detailing what trash was found in the bins on the classroom’s door.

The notes served to educate classmates and teachers on items commonly found in the recycling bins that did not belong there. Later, Patton worked with the students to create and print sticky notes that feature the most common contaminants students observed in the recycling bins. Now when the student team collects the recycling, they simply check off the appropriate box on the sticker and place it on the door.

Student places an audit report on a classroom door. (Photo provided)

“Teachers are so motivated to recycle right, they often get frustrated when they have a sticker placed on their door,” says Kristen Witt, a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math teacher at Millcreek.

The Energy Club’s 30 students collect and sort the school’s recycling bins twice a week. Tissues, paper towels, and food wrappers are the most common contaminants, though sometimes the trash can also be a treasure, such as when students find the bubble wrap that they love to pop.

Since the Energy Club has committed to engaging and educating their school, Millcreek’s contamination has gone down. One measure students implemented was to separate recycling bins that are located next to trash cans and under sinks. This proximity sometimes led to classmates inadvertently placing paper towels in the recycling. Since implementing this step, the students have documented a noticeable reduction of paper towels in the school’s recycling stream. The students continue to reflect and suggest ways to further improve their school’s recycling efforts.

“I am so proud of these students,” says Ms. Patton. “The improvements made at Millcreek all come from their initiative and energy. As an educator, it’s so gratifying to see the real-world impacts of students applying the lessons you’ve taught them.”

From City of Lexington


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