Sustainable classrooms: How to take action and inspire hope

Artwork in a school yard

Most children are aware of the environmental crisis we are facing; understandably, many are feeling stressed and frightened about it, which is called eco-anxiety. Experts in this field suggest educators focus on science and balance the worries with inspirational examples of the positive actions being done. This helps to provide hope for the future and spur further action.

We hope you find our ideas below helpful!

“It’s not only about helping [students] educate and make connections to other people; it’s about helping them understand their own environment and how they can add to the sustainability of where they live.”

Tina McMahon, Teacher, Ipswich Middle School, MA

Six ways to bring sustainable thinking inside your classroom

  1. Support a zero-waste classroom
  2. Grow your fresh air with indoor plants
  3. Conduct a classroom energy audit with your students
  4. Start a Green Team
  5. Have students measure their carbon footprints
  6. Do a vision-building exercise 

1. Zero-waste classroom and beyond!

Food and food waste activitiesWWF Food Waste Warrior program

According to the UN Food Waste Index Report 2021, estimates suggest that 8-10% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are associated with food that is not consumed. From the farm to the grocery store to our tables, food (and all the inputs to grow food) is wasted all along its journey. The distance food travels from farm to table also contributes to GHG emissions. Reducing food waste is easy for all of us to contribute to, thus reducing our environmental impacts. Here are a few ideas and videos to get the conversation started:  


Undercover Kids

Kids go undercover to discover food waste in their homes (and call their parents out)

Marketplace Food Waste Story

Food Waste Story

 These students were disgusted by MarketPlace’s food waste story. See what they did about it.

How much energy does it take to make food

PBS Kids Explainer

Watch this quick explainer by PBS Kids about the energy inputs needed to make food


A study of Minnesota schools found that food waste was 23.9% of their total waste and recyclable paper accounted for 23.5%.

Food Waste Warrior

Become Food Waste Warriors

The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) offers free K-12 lessons, activities and resources to teach the environmental impacts of food.
Download their educator toolkit here.




Food Waste Diary

Keep a food waste diary

Help students become more aware of their food waste by recording the food they are wasting at home for a week then discuss how they can reduce it. 






Joe's Home Farm

Where does your food come from?

Have students pick their favorite lunch or snack items and pick an ingredient, like sugar, cocoa, or the healthier side of things, fruits and vegetables. Then map out where they are grown, and their growing season and connect the dots to how far away (or close) ingredients come from. Discuss the benefits of both global and local sources and tie them into the carbon footprint calculation activity mentioned below.


Paper and plastic waste

Have you heard of GOOS paper?

Cardboard, office paper, and other paper products are common in schools. In Minnesota, a study found that recyclable paper products accounted for 23.5% of waste generated by their schools. 

Here are some tips to help reuse and reduce paper use in your classroom:

GOOS Paper

Image: Transfer station at Waste Resource Innovation Center in Guelph, Ontario.

Our plastic problem

We have all been led to believe that recycling is the answer to our plastic problem. The reality is that in North America, only a small percentage of plastic is actually recycled, and the rest goes to landfill. This is in part, because our current global supply chain is designed to produce plastic but not equally well-equipped to take it back, and it is cheaper to make things out of new, rather than recycled, plastic. This is why it’s important to reduce our plastic consumption, find ways to reuse it, and very last, recycle it.

Challenge your students by asking how they can reduce the amount of recycling your class produces. Is there another use for the item, like being used in a craft (here are a bunch of neat ideas here)? What products can be purchased at stores that offer refills? Reference our recycled plastic resources here to help with your discussion.

Wondering what you should do with an old Copernicus product that you are no longer using? Repair it, donate it or recycle it! Check out our pathways here

2. Grow fresh air in your classroom:

Areca Palm

Did you know there are plants that work at night to clean the air? In this Ted Talk, Kamal Meattle discusses the benefits of three common indoor plants; the Money Plant, Snake Plant, and Areca Palm (shown). Each plant cleans the air and is easy to care for. Introducing plants like these into your classroom can act as conversation starters about the relationship we have with plants in helping us breathe. Caring for them helps students connect with nature inside the classroom.

Watering tip: Have students fill a watering can at the end of the day with the leftover water from their water bottles, rather than pouring it out.

Note: Do you need permission before bringing plants into the classroom? Check your school’s guidelines or talk to your principal to be sure it is okay.

3. Conduct energy audits with your students 

How to turn off a light switch

Is this a phrase you use often? “Turn the light off when you’re done!”. If it is, you are not alone. This clever father is hoping to reach his teenagers through social media by creating a series of instructional videos. The fourth in his series covers how to turn off a light switch.

Making students aware of where and how energy is consumed helps empower them to find ways to reduce it at school and at home. 




Energy-reduction activities:

  • Have your students help you identify where energy is used in the classroom and create a checklist of where it may be wasted
  • Turn off your lights and rely on daylight for some of the day
  • Try to have a school-wide lights-out hour
  • Challenge yourselves to an energy-free day—including the use of batteries
  • Discuss some of the ways that energy might be saved at home and have students make signs to place in areas where lights tend to be left on 

4. Green Teams

Most schools have Green Teams but if your school does not, why not start one up? Here’s a multi-faceted activity for the team: collect and analyze data about environmental topics. Survey topics could include how to reduce waste or energy use, what improvements should be done to the outdoor spaces, or what to plant in the school garden. Students can set up a Green Team survey table in the hallway or cafeteria and collect students’ answers digitally using free survey tools, then analyze the information and come up with solutions.

 5. Estimate the carbon footprint of your class

Using a free carbon footprint estimator have students work to find out their approximate footprint in a year. Plot the data on a graph and have students determine the class average. The most important step is the discussion about the reductions they would like to make to their footprints and how that compares to your country’s net-zero GHG emissions goals (Canada’s goal, United States’ goal).

Here are a few questions to spark the discussion:

  • Can you walk or use public transportation to get to school or other activities?
  • What items in the classroom could be replaced with lower-carbon emitting options?
  • Can you change what you eat for lunch? 
  • What broken items could you repair instead of buying a new one?
  • How can you take better care of your electronics so they last longer?

6. Vision-building activity

Part of having hope is envisioning what a carbon-free society—one not dependent on fossil fuels—could look like by the year 2050. Have students imagine a future where we listened to climate scientists—Does it include renewable energy, electrified public transportation, freedom from environmental racism, and more urban agriculture? Read this article to learn more about how to navigate this type of activity with your class.


A challenge

Does your class want to take action? Try one of the activities above, tag us on social doing so, and we will send you a free surprise!

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