Maintenance and Operations


A key component of successful school district waste reduction programs is to ensure that waste management and other environmental goals are carefully woven into operation and maintenance procedures (e.g., contracts, procurement, training, manuals, etc.). To accomplish this, a system must be developed to provide guidelines that define acceptable operational and maintenance practices, employee training, and strategies that promote environmental efficiency through resource conservation and waste reduction.

An excellent example of a school district’s waste reduction efforts paying off is Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). The District recycles 41 percent of its waste and aims to get that figure up to 75 percent. Current recycling efforts save OUSD about $50,000 in monthly waste services costs. Imagine the savings when they hit the 75 percent mark! One novel feature of OUSD’s recycling program is the Green Glove awards that show appreciation for and recognize environmental efforts made by the custodial staff. [1]

In addition to incorporating waste reduction strategies into operation and maintenance procedures, it is important to partner with a district’s facilities and planning departments to ensure that other environmental issues, such as indoor air quality, energy conservation, water utilization, landscape maintenance, and further environmental effects, have been addressed. For information about designing school facilities that are materials, water, and energy-efficient as well as easy to maintain, see the CalRecycle web site on high performance schools.


Organic waste, including landscape waste, typically accounts for 30 percent of a school district’s waste stream.[2] Efforts to reduce landscape waste can have a significant impact on district-wide waste reduction goals and disposal costs. The following “resource-efficient” landscape management practices allow school districts to maintain their grounds in a cost-effective manner, while at the same time reducing the generation of green waste, decreasing the need for water, fertilizer, and pesticides, and lowering maintenance costs.

  1. Use Healthy Products. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a widely accepted approach to pest management that results in effective suppression of pest populations, while minimizing human health and environmental hazards. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation is committed to facilitating IPM programs in schools throughout California and assisting school districts in the implementation of the Healthy Schools Act. If fertilizers are necessary, applying precise amounts of fertilizer in a timely manner will regulate growth, diminish the potential for water pollution, and promote healthy plants. See Recycle information below about the associated benefits related to compost use (e.g., reducing water, fertilizer, and pesticide application).
  2. Reduce. Practices that reduce landscape and water waste generation produce significant economic and environmental benefits. Direct savings result from reduced maintenance, labor, water, and fertilizer costs. Indirect cost benefits include reduced hauling expenses, disposal fees, and exposure to workers’ compensation claims due to crew injury from lifting heavy loads.
    1. Efficient Irrigation not only hydrates landscaping but can prevent water waste, pollution of the water table and excess plant growth. Water-efficient irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation, can deliver a precise volume of water to plant root zones. This can be done by using soil probes to monitor soil moisture before watering and/or developing watering schedules based on historical or actual evapotranspiration data. Furthermore, through proper gutter placement, rainwater can be directed to landscape instead of hardscape areas so that water may percolate back into the ground. Excess water creates runoff that can contain fertilizers and pesticides that by entering storm drains can pollute local creeks and rivers. Another advantage of watering in moderation is the avoidance of excessive plant and weed growth thus decreasing the amount of green waste produced.
    2. Xeriscaping. Many times a landscape is “inherited” (i.e., it is already established and you are simply charged with maintaining it) and a transition to a more resource-efficient landscape may be a possibility. By reducing turf areas and establishing new landscapes with more water-efficient plants to reduce green waste, conserve water, and lower maintenance costs, a balance can be achieved that fits both the aesthetic and recreational needs of the school and the resource availability of the region.
    3. Grasscyclingabout Grasscycle is the natural recycling of grass by leaving clippings on the lawn when mowing. Grass clippings decompose quickly, releasing valuable, high-quality nutrients and organic matter back into the soil. This encourages healthier, disease- and pest-resistant plants.
    4. Selective Pruning. Excessive and haphazard pruning of shrubs and trees is wasteful and unhealthy. Pruning should be limited to maintain natural growth patterns. Hedging, topping, and shearing of landscape plants into formal shapes only encourage excessive new growth. Use natural pruning techniques at the proper season to promote healthier plants, reduce “suckering,” and stabilize growth.
  3. Re-use. School districts can play a vital role in increasing demand for recycled products and reap the benefits of helping the environment while lowering costs. Landscaping products such as compost, mulch and landscape edging that have recycled content can count toward procurement goals. Compost should be purchased from permitted compost facilities. See CalRecycle’s Compost/Mulch Procurement Specifications for assistance in developing specifications for purchasing compost or mulch.
    1. Mulch will insulate plant roots, smother weeds, minimize water loss, and help reduce erosion and dust. Use shredded or chipped woody materials to protect soil in planting beds and other bare areas in the landscape. The District can save money by using on-site generated trimmings as feedstock for the mulch.
    2. Compost is typically made from yard trimmings and food waste. It is useful for establishing new landscapes or revitalizing existing grounds. Compost enhances soil fertility by providing macro- and micro-nutrients, organic matter, and beneficial soil organisms. By increasing soil water-holding capacity, compost slows evaporation and increases plant drought tolerance, helping districts conserve water and reduce irrigation costs.
  4. Recycle. Compost, nature’s own way of recycling, can transform poor soils into a fertile growth medium that supports healthy plant growth while reducing water, fertilizer, and pesticide requirements. Small-scale composting on school grounds does not generally require a permit as long as all materials are generated at the school site.
    1. Composting is the controlled decomposition of organic material such as leaves, twigs, grass clippings, and vegetable food waste–all of which are generated by schools. By composting, school districts can help to keep the high volume of organic material out of landfills, potentially reduce the district’s hauling and disposal costs, and turn this material into a useful product that can be used on site.
    2. Vermicomposting is another form of composting that uses worms to break down food scraps. The worm’s castings are full of beneficial microbes and nutrients, which make a great natural plant fertilizer.
    3. Mulch. Districts may be able to save money by using on-site generated trimmings as feedstock for mulch. This may require the purchase of a portable chipper to process the materials. Many schools could share one chipper.


Custodial staff are critical to any school district’s efforts to identify and take advantage of pollution prevention opportunities, to conserve resources (materials, fuel, and energy), and to reduce waste. The following are some suggested strategies that custodial staff can practice to support the district’s waste reduction program.

  1. Use Healthy Products. Replace toxic cleaning products with non-toxic or less toxic alternatives. Appropriate janitorial products can play a role in promoting green buildings and a healthy learning environment. The Green Schools Buying Guide provides information and resources to assist in the purchasing of environmentally preferable cleaning products.
  2. Reduce. Purchasing cleaning products in bulk or concentrated form and using refillable spray bottles can reduce packaging waste.
  3. Re-use. Through the process of re-using items, procurement and disposal costs can be reduced and environmental benefits increased by reducing the amount of material going to landfills. Examples of items to reuse include durable mops, dust mops, rags, vacuum cleaner bags, and trash can liners. Also, establish a material reuse area where reusable schools supplies are readily accessible as San Diego Unified School District has done.
  4. Recycle. Look for opportunities to improve the school district’s recycling program, as it is now a requirement of schools to recycle through the implementation of AB 341. Custodial staff know better than anyone what materials are being disposed of in the greatest quantities, and can identify opportunities for expansion and improvement of the school district’s waste reduction program. The CalRecycle Recycling Starter Kit can help your school reduce waste through printable labels and posters that have been developed just for schools.


Keeping school facilities and equipment in good working order is an essential component of a school district’s waste reduction program. By extending the life of school facilities and equipment, you reduce the need for (and cost of) replacements and ensure that the school performs at the level at which it is was designed. Inadequate maintenance can lead to problems ranging from poor indoor air quality and increased energy expenses, to visually, thermally, and acoustically inadequate environments. The costs of fixing these problems often exceed the investments to prevent them. The following strategies will help the school district reach its waste reduction goals through effective maintenance.

  1. Use Healthy Products. Use water-based instead of solvent-based paints to minimize toxic emissions and allow clean up with water. For more information, see the CalRecycle Oil-Based Paint and Coatings–Hazards and Responsible Use fact sheet.Also, consider replacing light ballasts in your school if your school was built before 1979 or has not had a complete lighting retrofit since 1979. Many schools in the U.S. have fluorescent light ballasts containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB). The California Department of Toxic Substances Control is working to remove and safely dispose of PCB-containing lighting ballasts in schools. For more information, contact Mardis Coers at (916) 322-0712 or see the EPA web site on PCB Lighting Ballasts in Schools. This subject is also addressed in the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s PCB Advisory for Schools.
  2. Reduce. Through proper maintenance, equipment and district property can be reused, thereby keeping items out of the landfill and preserving investments. Improper use and overuse can lead to product breakdown and disposal; therefore, it is important to operate and maintain equipment according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. A preventative maintenance program featuring schedules and records for all building equipment can be implemented. The Collaborative for High Performance Schools provides information on developing an effective maintenance plan for schools.
  3. Re-use. There are many items that can be reused in the maintenance department to keep items out of the landfill and lower procurement costs. Examples include chairs, desks, furniture, equipment, reusable HVAC system filters and rechargeable batteries. Installing electric hand dryers can also allow for the reduction of paper waste. Finally, establish a reuse area where reused or recycled materials from other projects, such as wood, metals, and other items, can be collected and reused.
  4. Recycle. There are many items in the maintenance department that can be kept from the landfill by recycling them. Send old equipment (e.g., air conditioner cooling compressors) back to the vendor to be refurbished and resold or to a recycler. Recycle spent batteriesfluorescent lamps, and fluorescent tubes to keep them from leaking toxic substances into the groundwater. Buy recycled paint made from a variety of paints that have been collected and remixed; you can also use excess paint for renovation projects and graffiti removal.


For more ideas and information regarding waste prevention within the maintenance and operations departments of schools please see the resources below. The first two resources include two guides: one that focuses on reducing yard waste, and one that focuses on healthier cleaning practices and products. The rest of the resources are checklists of waste prevention ideas for providing healthier and more environmentally friendly operations and maintenance for buildings.



1. Oakland Unified School District Waste Reduction Programs, CBS, October 2010

2. Statewide Characterization Study Results and Final Report, CalRecycle, November 2009

For more information contact: Schools Program,