Trees: Paper in the Classroom

Pre-Visit Activity, Grades 4+

Adapted from Project Learning Tree 


Students will calculate the amount of paper they waste in school and suggest alternate behaviors for reducing this in the future. 


  • Cardboard boxes or trash bags (one per student)
  • Bathroom scales


Paper is essentially a simple material, a mat of fibers held together by their interconnected roughness.  It can be made from any fibrous material such as cotton or wood.  Paper making was invented in China about 100 A.D. and was made one sheet at a time.  Almost all of the paper we use today comes from trees. 

Although trees are a renewable resource, reusing and recycling old paper is a good lesson on conserving the limited natural resources we have.  We will always need new trees for paper products though, because each time paper goes through the manufacturing process the fibers deteriorate. 


Part I

1.  Ask each student to save all the paper they would normally throw in the trash can for one week.  Boxes or bags for collection should be conveniently placed near each desk.  This should include lunch-generated waste as well as classroom.  (Smelly paper or paper with food on it should be excluded.)  Make sure you collect your own paper too! 

2.  At the end of the week, ask each student to weigh all the paper they collected.  They can do this by first weighing themselves holding the paper and recording this number and then weighing just themselves.  The numbers can then be subtracted to find the weight of the paper.  Just putting the paper on a bathroom scale may not give an accurate reading. 

3.  Create a master list of all the students' totals.  Ask students to add the numbers to make a total for the class.  Using the class total, ask each student to solve these problems:

a.  Use long division to determine the average weight of paper waste generated by each student. 

b.  Use multiplication to calculate the approximate total weight of paper waste generated by all students in the building each week.  (Use the average weight per student found in the first problem.)  Provide students with the number of students in the school. 

c.  Ask some of the staff and faculty to keep track of their paper waste for one week.  Calculate an average weight.  Multiply this number by the total number of staff and faculty.  Add this number to your answer for the previous problem to get a grand total for the school. 

d.  What percentage of the school total does the paper in your pile represent? 

e.  What percentage of the school total does your class' total represent? 

Part II

1.  Have each student separate their paper pile into two stacks:  One for paper that has been completely used and the other for paper that could be used again for some purpose.

2.  Ask the question:  "Are we wasting paper?"

3.  Have small groups of students brainstorm ways to reduce paper waste in the school.  Share ideas.

4.  Act on the suggestions you consider most worthwhile, making them a part of your classroom way of life.

5.  After one week, repeat Part I of the activity to determine the success of your paper efficiency campaign.  Have students calculate how much less paper they threw away.