Does changing our behaviour at school actually make a difference in terms of climate change? And if it does, how can we know?

Sheila Gundry

Bins slopping with school dinner waste…. images of tonnes of unnecessary waste dumped in landfill sites…. waste can really capture children’s attention. What’s more, it’s a tangible issue for children and young people to tackle. For example, they can set up recycling systems or collect break-time fruit waste for composting – things that even young children can take responsibility for and know that they are doing their bit to reduce waste, increase sustainability, and address climate change.

Working in Devon schools, Resource Futures and Devon County Council have been investigating how best to encourage these initial steps, how to scale up to more comprehensive behavioural change, and how to measure if, or how, it is working. In particular, we have looked at behavioural change in terms of:

  1. Are there measureable changes in schools, such as reducing residual waste or increases in recycling over the long term?
  2. When children understand more about the issues, does this affect their behaviour at school?
  3. Does it affect their home life? When children are encouraged to pass on their learning to their families, does this actually happen?

Long term changes in residual waste and recycling

Being faced with a heap of all the waste from one day at school brings home to children and adults just how big this problem is, and the potential climate change impact if it were all to go to landfill and produce more greenhouse gas. We help children in Devon to audit this waste: they sort it into standard categories (paper, cans, etc.) and weigh each category. They then develop their action plan, which includes [i] specific proposals for each waste stream that is an issue in their school (such as paper towels or fruit waste), and [ii] ways of raising understanding and awareness across the school community, for example, through assemblies or curriculum-linked workshops. After around six months, when they have made good progress with their action plan, we help them undertake a second audit.

The 49 Devon primary schools that have had a second audit since 2010, gave the following results:

Residual waste (g)/pupil/day Residual * waste (kg)/pupil/year Recycling rate
Audit 1 118 23.6 20%
Audit 2 66 13.2 47%
Change – 52 – 10.4

* Estimated NB, all data are averages.

The table shows that, on average, each pupil produces about 10kg less waste per year at school after taking action. That is a reduction of 44%, which would be over 3 tonnes a year for a school with 300 pupils.  To illustrate that amount, it is more than three baby elephants by weight. The data also shows that schools have increased their recycling rate from 20% to 47%.  These results have been achieved both by schools making changes to their systems, and by pupils and staff changing their behaviour in terms of waste.

Understanding the issues, and how this affects behaviour

It is straightforward to gain feedback from teachers on how effective they think curriculum-linked workshops are.  For example, data [1] from 147 Devon teachers in 2014-15 show that they all said that waste workshops overall were ‘excellent’ or ‘good’, with 99 per cent thinking that communicating aspects of the Reduce, Re-use, Recycle message was also ‘excellent’ or ‘good’.  99% of the 2,375 children surveyed in 2014/15 said that they had learnt something new from the session they were involved in, with 99% enjoying or really enjoying it.  This is clearly important for motivation to take action.

Gaining feedback on longer-term impacts is harder to achieve. Looking just at recycling, with 66 Devon teachers who have been involved in longer-term waste education programmes, we found the following:

Have you noticed any of the following changes in your school following Resource Futures’ audits, workshops and assemblies?
Question                                                                                                                                                                                        % agreed
New or improved school recycling facilities 46%
Pupils more enthusiastic about recycling and reducing waste 91%
Increased amount of waste being recycled 58%

So whilst over 90% of pupils are more enthusiastic about recycling, according to their teachers, a lower percentage of schools (58%) are actually increasing the amount of waste being recycled. This could well be because only 46% of schools have new or improved recycling facilities, which shows that both enthusiasm and good facilities are needed for behavioural change to create significant increases in recycling rates.

Taking the message home

Whilst we can show clear changes of behaviour at school, does waste education make any difference to behaviour at home?  In spring 2015, we surveyed 3,470 parents/carers from 26 Devon primary schools. The response rate was 19% (645 people), and a large majority (82%) said that their child had talked to them about waste. When asked what their child had talked about, it was clear that the ‘importance of recycling at home’ and the ‘Reduce, Re-use, Recycle’ message were the main areas that were discussed.

We were also interested in whether their child’s involvement in workshops had influenced their family’s approach to waste and recycling. Many (59%) said it had and, of those who said that they had not been influenced, the majority said that they were already recycling as much as possible at home.  The 59% who responded ‘yes’ were then asked how their behaviour was influenced.  Most of these respondents said that they were ‘recycling more’ as a result of their child’s involvement in workshops. When they were asked to estimate how much more their household was recycling, 44% of them said that it was a ‘few more items each week’, but 22% said that they were now putting in half as much again.

And what do the parents think about being taught by their children – are they pleased, angry, disparaging? The responses we had were really positive:

“I am really encouraged to see this being taught at school and love how enthused my daughter now is about the 3Rs” – Parent, Sandford Primary

Although we were doing lots anyway, the kids really listened and understood the things presented to them and recycle, etc. for themselves not just because we tell them to!” – Parent, Stoke Gabriel Primary

Great idea for kids to learn hands on and bring that attitude home to educate parents who are less aware” – Parent, Holsworthy Primary

Lilly came home excited about what she had learnt and asked the days we recycle and put our bins out” – Parent, Fremington Primary

So overall, does changing our behaviour at school actually make a difference in terms of climate change?

Waste audit evidence from Devon schools shows that children can make a difference in terms of reducing school waste. This is important particularly with food waste which, in areas that use landfill sites [2], rots to produce methane, a key greenhouse gas.  Learning about the issues plays a useful role and is much appreciated by teachers but a direct link with climate change is, of course, harder to establish.  And as for taking the message home, well, children do talk to their parents about waste issues and parents say they have made practical changes as a result, so it seems that this can help the climate too.


1 Devon County Council funded the work discussed in this article, and it owns the data cited in this article.

2 Much of Devon’s residual waste now goes to Energy from Waste plants, rather than landfill sites.


Sheila Gundry is Education Manager for Resource Futures.  Contact:  This article was first published in NAEE’s Summer 2016 journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 114).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.

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