Case Study: Rethink Rubbish

System: Education

Problem: Consumption and Waste

Location: Metropolitan Adelaide

Commencement: Dec 2017

Completion: Dec 2019

Methods: Co-research, co-creation, ethnography, auto-ethnography, workshops, action research, mapping, gameplay, sustainability transitions

About Rethink Rubbish

The Rethink Rubbish project aimed to foster cultural shifts in the relationship between consumption and waste in a primary school in Adelaide’s North-West. Through an immersive and participatory process spanning two years (2018-19), highly interactive workshops were facilitated with teachers and children from Reception through to year 7. The workshops combined activities and provocations to engage students in the complex problem of consumption and waste and encouraged creative responses spanning writing, drawing, making and storytelling. Students were invited to reimagine events and activities from their everyday lives as waste-free and were encouraged to initiate projects within their community.

Scope of work

Co-creation activities continued in the school throughout the 2-year period, empowering children to lead the change they wanted to see in their community. Initiatives included art and remaking waste activities, garden-to-kitchen activities and waste challenges that engaged children in the creation of their own interventions into the waste problem. In one intervention, a new recycling system was co-designed and co-produced with students who then taught their peers how to use it with active demonstrations.

Children were supported in the development of their own co-learning processes and were empowered to engage with all members of the school community.

Workshops with small groups of teachers also explored opportunities to connect co-creation activities across the curriculum, including a garden to table initiative that encouraged students to be producers not just consumers of produce. Continual engagement with the school’s Children’s Parliament ‘Environmental Affairs’ ministry provided coaching and support to a group of custodians in the school who led the school in a process of change. 

Mapping played a key role in building understandings of the wicked problem of consumption and waste and for the identification of leverage points for intervention. Mapping was also used as a sensemaking tool to disseminate findings and to help participants to visualise the interconnections between sustainability initiatives and curriculum-based teaching and learning outcomes.

The larger aim of the Rethink Rubbish was embedding the cultures of care and respect that could support a transition to zero waste. 

Photographs from workshops where children are learning about waste by sorting through the waste they made in their classrooms

Emerging cultural shifts

Students engaged in drawing, writing and storytelling activities where they reimagined their lives without waste, from their lunchboxes through to their birthday parties where traditional party favours were sacrificed, for example using paper kites instead of balloons and potted flowers instead of lolly bag giveaways.

Each class group was given a ‘jar challenge’ and they stopped using their rubbish bin and instead monitored their waste to landfill in a clear glass jar. Each time the jar filled up, the students documented it on a poster so they could monitor the reductions in waste from the changes they were making in their behaviours.

Though the challenge was met with varying degrees of success, the provocation served its purpose well.

A small group of children from the Rethink Rubbish project shared their stories at a Climate Space event in 2019 (held immediately after the September School Strike for Climate rally). The students shared insights about changing waste habits with other event participants, many of whom were teachers from other schools. Their presentation reflected the cultural shifts that had occurred within themselves and within their school community and inspired others by showing what’s possible when we work together towards a shared goal.


Doodle of the findings from the project including the need for a catalyst, commitment, knowledge, cooperation, maintenance, leadership, integrations and systems


Achieving ‘zero waste’ is a somewhat lofty aim, particularly in a school setting, however the larger aim of cultural change to foster conscious consumption and low waste behaviours was visible by the end of this engagement. This was evident not only in the documentation maintained by students but also in their attitudes, in their willingness to speak their truth and in the emergent feedback loop from parents who shared stories of the changes rippling out from the school into their homes. A commitment to the problem, its context and a community of people created a project that was truly collaborative and worked to empower young people to step into their agency to co-learn and co-create approaches to a complex problem. 

It was evident that a number of factors were key in creating the conditions for emergence of low waste behaviours. In this school setting these included a catalyst for change, a commitment to a shared vision, knowledge in how to act, co-operation throughout the community, maintenance and support structures that can self-organise, leadership from within, integrations into teaching and learning, the school’s ethos and into the everydayness of life, and adequate support systems for remaking waste.

The Rethink Rubbish program continues as Project Zero at Ngutu College where the lab’s immersion as creatives and researchers in residence provides opportunities for continued co-learning and processes of deep engagement.

This project is being featured in the upcoming 'Unmaking Waste' book (due to be published in mid-2021).