Students Ignite Environmental Change Across Campuses: Students for Zero Waste Week

By Alyssa Leadingham

July 2024

How can young people reignite their passion for protecting marine ecosystems from single-use plastics? This past spring, 45 schools—spanning nine U.S. states, two U.S. territories, and two foreign countries—banded together to revive the annual Students for Zero Waste Week campaign. In 2024, students participated from:

  1. California
  2. Florida
  3. New York
  4. Michigan
  5. Illinois
  6. Texas
  7. Maryland
  1. Pennsylvania
  2. New Jersey
  3. U.S. Virgin Islands
  4. American Samoa
  5. Pakistan
  6. Kenya
a logo with a drawing of a river surrounded by green grass leading to an ocean that says “Go Green Think Blue.”

Between April 1 to May 3, each school chose at least one week to designate as their campus’ Zero Waste Week where students pledge to reduce landfill waste to protect local environments in support of a healthy ocean. With students spearheading this movement, many schools opted to create public service announcements, host school-wide assemblies, conduct waste audits, and participate in letter writing campaigns to local organizations and public representatives. Together their efforts help to protect local watersheds, the world's ocean, and special ocean areas, like national marine sanctuaries, from the negative impacts of single-use plastic pollution.

The six schools featured below serve as incredible examples of how small-scale changes can collaboratively make a large impact on the health of marine ecosystems. With 45 schools on board, the Students for Zero Waste Week campaign harnesses the potential to transform a short-term campaign into a permanent zero waste culture across school campuses, at home, and in surrounding communities.

a white bird on a sandy beach littered with many pieces of human made trash
A coffee cup found on the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands serves as an example of the negative impact of single-use plastic items on marine environments. Photo: NOAA Marine Debris

La Colina Junior High School | Santa Barbara, CA

Students at La Colina Junior High School tackled waste issues from various perspectives throughout their Zero Waste Week project. Leadership students began the week by creating Public Service Announcement videos to encourage homeroom students to reduce food and textile waste, to shop locally when possible, to utilize public transportation, and reduce litter across campus. To inspire widespread participation, students were challenged to sign a pledge to refuse single-use plastic cutlery in the cafeteria and were invited to participate in daily ‘green’ community service activities. Successful participants were awarded with reusable wheat grass cutlery and bamboo toothbrushes; unique alternatives to commonly found single-use plastic litter. On the final day of their campaign, students celebrated their hard work through a dress up day, donning their favorite thrift store finds.

a colorful poster that says “Students for Zero Waste Week Go Green Think Blue” with a drawing of a coral reef and sea turtle

Ivanna Eudora Kean High School | Red Hook, U.S. Virgin Islands

Over 100 students and teachers engaged in Zero Waste Week at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School. Their week-long waste reduction activities included an in-depth presentation on single-use plastics, the distribution of more than 700 reusable water bottles to the entire student body and staff, and several campus clean-ups or waste audits. To put their creativity to the test, a small subset of students participated in a recycling bin decoration activity alongside a local artist, which will help spark a new waste separation program on campus next year.

Los Arboles Middle School | Marina, CA

Teachers at Los Arboles Middle School aimed to keep their three-week campaign student-centered this past spring. In doing so, they invited students to complete a survey to determine which waste reduction activities they wished to incorporate into their Zero Waste Week initiatives. Students became agents of change by opting to focus their attention on reducing litter in the school garden. In addition, students also created artwork to display on Earth Day posters across campus to help educate their peers about the importance of valuing and connecting with nature. In the classroom, science students immersed themselves in carbon cycling lessons with an emphasis on the benefits of vermicomposting (the process of using earthworms to break down organic matter into compost).

Julie Haws, a teacher at Los Arboles Middle School, says that, “Zero Waste Week helps us reinforce the values we hope our students adhere to when they are at school and beyond, in the community.”

Jovita Idár Elementary | Chicago, IL

students in a classroom sit around a table that has different types of plastic waste, such as yogurt containers, plastic forks, and single-use water bottles
Jovita Idár Elementary students hosted several waste audits throughout their Zero Waste Week. Photo: Ryan D. Johnson/Jovita Idár Elementary.

Students at Jovita Idár Elementary chose to focus their Zero Waste Week on eliminating single-use plastic cutlery packages in their cafeteria. Within each package are a single-use plastic spork, a napkin, and a single-use plastic straw. Instead of students utilizing this cutlery, each one opted to bring their own reusable utensils from home. At the start of their Zero Waste Week project, students tallied 1,350 plastic straws and flatware in their campus waste stream. Through their hard work and determination, zero plastic straws and flatware were found in the trash receptacles at the end of the week! In addition to plastic cutlery, students also were able to decrease plastic wrappers by 87%.

An illustration of a cartoon tiger sitting in a cafeteria eating a sandwich with the words “I Eat What I Take” around the border.
Calabasas Elementary's 'I Eat What I Take' logo created for student prize buttons. Logo Credit: Juan R. (student)/Calabasas Elementary

Calabasas Elementary | Watsonville, CA

Students at Calabasas Elementary dedicated the entire month of April to Zero Waste initiatives. Specifically, they weighed food and packaging waste each school day throughout the month. As part of an annual project on campus, a 6th grade student created an ‘Eat What You Take’ logo that was used for a prize button to award students who reduced their food waste by only taking items they intended to eat during campus meals. Calabasas Elementary also hosted a ‘Bring Your Own Lunch’ day, where 30% of their students brought a zero waste lunch from home.

Maple Village Waldorf School | Long Beach, CA

Fifth grade students took ownership of Zero Waste Week at Maple Village Waldorf School this past spring. As part of their campaign, students created posters, presented at a school-wide assembly and in individual classrooms, and utilized reusable hand towels in bathrooms across campus. Prior to the start of Zero Waste Week, students and staff noticed their bathroom trash receptacles were overflowing with paper towels. By introducing reusable hand towels and a ‘used’ towel basket, laundered towels completely replaced the need for single-use paper towels. Their success throughout the week inspired the campus to incorporate permanent zero waste activities as part of their school culture.

Lisa Jordan McCarthy, a teacher at Maple Village Waldorf School, excitedly exclaimed “This is the new normal! Zero Waste Week really helps people realize what they are using and how they can stop.”

Join the Collective Impact

Thank you to the schools who participated in this year’s Zero Waste Week to make a difference in their communities and beyond!

Does your school have what it takes to go green and think blue? Check out the Students for Zero Waste Week campaign page for more details. Campaign dates for 2025 will be announced in the fall.

students holding up zero waste week projects
In a past campaign, students at Robert Louis Stevenson School in Carmel, California hosted an Earth Day assembly to educate the campus about ways to reduce waste and protect marine life in nearby Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: NOAA

Alyssa Leadingham is the program coordinator for the NOAA Ocean Guardian School program.