Where does my food waste go?

In this unit, students investigate an everyday phenomenon: food waste in the school cafeteria. Students observe other classes during lunch as they throw away their food scraps and packaging, or watch a video typical of a lunchroom experience. Students record their observations and “wonderings” while in the cafeteria. Back in the classroom, the class develops a Driving Question Board (DQB), that helps generate ideas for investigations. Their questions drive the flow of the unit. Students plan and carry out their own investigations to answer these questions, which includes designing a landfill, classroom composting, and food waste audits at school and at home. Students collect information from their households and from the school to better understand the ways that their community is engaged in waste reduction. The unit culminates in a school- or community-specific action plan that the students develop and propose to implement.

About This Unit

This food waste unit has been created by the Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education (MSTE) in collaboration with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This unit is aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to provide ease in supplementing environmental education in the formal classroom but is also suitable for informal use. It has been designed to develop critical thinking skills, and to encourage students to think constructively about environmental issues and to make informed decisions about our natural resources.

Pathway Overview

The Pathway Overview shows the conceptual and coherent flow of the entire unit.

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ask Ask
observe Discover
image/svg+xml Learn
Where does my food waste go?
After we finish a meal, the uneaten waste goes to a landfill.
What is a landfill?
A landfill is a big pit made up of layers of garbage and soil that fills up over time.
What can we do instead of making a new landfill?
We can reduce how much we put in landfills. More than 20% of what goes into a landfill is food waste. Americans throw away a lot of food.
What else can we do with food waste?
Food starts to change in a landfill. Instead of throwing it away in garbage bags, we can compost it.
What is compost?
Microorganisms, called decomposers, eat and break down food waste (and other material) for their own energy needs. Overtime, this process breaks the food into tiny pieces that look like soil. Decomposers are part of all food and energy webs.
Is food waste a big problem?
Food waste contributes to greenhouse gas emissions in landfills. Wasting food is also wasting other resources like fossil fuels, water, and land use.
Besides compost, how else can we help reduce food waste?
We can take action in our own homes, schools, and communities.

Teacher Guide

This document details the flow of lessons from the teacher perspective, including lab set-up and safety instructions, suggestions for discussion prompts, and examples of student work to assist in planning. Individual lessons from the Pathway document are included for reference, followed by detailed learning plans.

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Material & Supply List

A number of consumable and non-consumable materials and supplies are used during investigations. Some additional, optional equipment can enhance the investigations if available.

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Student Activity Sheets

Lessons in the Teacher Guide reference specific activity sheets; you can find links to these sheets below. By making a personal copy of an activity sheet in Google Drive, you can modify it to suit your particular classroom's needs.

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All Materials

You can find all of the materials listed above and more in our public Google Drive folder. These documents can be downloaded or copied into a private Google Drive and modified for classroom use.

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Unit Resources

Interested in learning more about food waste? Looking for additional lessons and activities for other grade levels? These resources can help you get started.

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