Working towards a greener school

(first published December 2007, updated September 2009)

Way back in in June 2007, The United States Conference of Mayors stated that green schools for all American children were a *necessary* goal for the nation.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had quite a few high school students from completely different areas ask me for tips on greening their school. It’s really hard to describe how encouraging seeing this sort of energy and initiative is!

This interest has also flagged with me that apparently many schools still don’t have environmental programs, which is a little sad given that these institutions are so important in communicating a green message to the generation who will be next running the show. Not only that, but green schools are healthier and happier schools and often cheaper to run. 

If you’re a student in such a school, it can be a little more difficult to implement environmental initiatives given the bureaucracy involved; but don’t let that put you off! Think small so you don’t scare the faculty and then work up! Probably the thing to keep foremost in mind is cost and complexity – anything expensive or staff resource intensive is likely to be quickly disregarded.. unless there’s a grant available (and they are many around).

Here’s some relatively simple strategies for going about implementing a green program in a school where there is none.

Start up a committee. No need to get permission from the school for this initially; it can be something informal with your school pals for starters that you do in your own time. There’s nothing quite like the power of peer pressure during your teen years for doing good! Get a few friends together on a regular basis and get them to invite their friends to meetings during your lunch time to talk about environment related issues at your school and start brainstorming ideas.

Write the ideas down; big, small and whacky – all of them. This is so important as so many good ideas get lost when they are only spoken and not recorded somewhere. While an idea might be unrealistic, it can spark off other ideas that can be implemented.

Evaluate the ideas. How much will they cost? How much time would it take away from teachers and other school staff to get involved? Will they require students to take time off studies and if so, can they be worked into the curriculum somehow, even if it’s only a small part? Remember; start out small, be realistic so you don’t scare the teachers :).

Present your ideas. Identify a tree-hugging teacher or faculty member; they are the best targets :). Tell them what you’ve been doing and show them the ideas you’ve come up with. They’ll be impressed as you’ve gone past the “talk” stage. Ask that how you might be able to get these ideas heard at a higher level within the school hierarchy. Alternatively, approach a student council member whom you think will take an interest in what you’ve been doing.

Here’s some simple ideas that won’t have your headmaster/principal running away screaming; in fact, some can save or even make your school some money!:

Recycling bins – this can be a moneymaker for your green program. In many countries, soda bottles and other containers are worth cash. Bins for collecting these are very cheap; even if its just a hessian sack within a wire frame. Work out a roster as to who monitors the bins and who takes them to recycling center; who handles the cash etc. If it proves successful, expand the program to paper and other items.

Tree planting – many local councils and environmental groups will provide seedlings free of charge. Identify an area of the school where the trees can be planted. Work out a roster of who and how they’ll be looked after (don’t forget about school holidays).

Worm farm – your canteen/cafeteria is a rich resource for food waste that worms will love. A simple worm farm can chew through a stack of waste and the castings/leachate can then be sold (more funding) or applied to school gardens.

Paper – schools are huge consumers of paper. Simple ideas such as double sided printing, using recycled paper or making notepads out of used paper help in reducing consumption. Learn more about the paper reduction diet.

Lighting – while it’s necessary for lights to be left on in a school of a night-time; perhaps a reduction in the number of lights is very possible. This will save your school money in electricity and on emissions related to generating the electricity. Some lighting can probably be replace with CFL’s (Compact Fluorescent Lamps), saving further money and electricity consumption

Standby power – so many modern electrical items still consume power when switched off; for example computers and monitors. While it’s only a couple of watts an hour, it all adds up. This is also known as “phantom power load“. Perform a survey of all the electronic equipment you can that’s left in standby mode overnight and over weekends then roughly calculate how many watts that come too – you’ll be shocked! See if you can implement a “switch it off at the wall” policy at your school.

Cleaning –  ask custodial/janitorial staff for names of the cleaners they use, then research those on the Internet for their ingredients. The best way to do this is run a search on:

Brand name + MSDS

.. an MSDS is a Material Safety Data Sheet which will list the ingredients. You can then learn more about those ingredients by running a search on its name followed by the word “environment” or “toxic” or “toxicity”. Recommend greener cleaning product alternatives – for some ideas, check out this list of approved green cleaning materials for schools in New York State

Food – perhaps your canteen/cafeteria can source more food locally? This will mean less food miles and will help benefit the local economy

Spare land – if your school has unused portions of land, see if you can turn these areas into gardens or heirloom/heritage vegetable plot – a local hardware store might sponsor supplies. A vegetable patch can provide ingredients for your canteen and there’s just something about getting your hands dirty that really (literally) helps connect people to nature. A school vegetable patch will certainly stir up interest among the students!

School newsletter – if you have a school newsletter, see if you can get some space for a regular segment on green living and provide tips in each issue that relate directly to students. 

Showers – many schools have gym showers and these can be a huge contributor to water consumption. Low flow shower heads only cost a few bucks each and can save thousands of gallons per shower stall each year!

These tips are really only barely scratching the surface – with young minds being so creative, I’m sure you could identify dozens of different areas at your school that need attention and many more green ideas! Remember, think small for starters; show your school that going green is cheap and easy – little steps lead on to bigger things!

For bigger projects, search around for grants – there is all sorts of funding available that your school may not be aware of! Some search terms:

environment grants school STATE
environment funding school STATE

.. where STATE is the name of the state your school is located in.

Perhaps a solar school?

An area where there is a lot of government funding available at the moment is in regards to solar power. I’m not sure on the specifics of programs in the USA, but in Australia, the National Solar Schools Program (NSSP) is providing $50,000 grants for schools to install grid connect solar power systems – and just about every school in the country is eligible. Adding solar power to your school not only cuts energy costs and carbon emissions, it can also be a great educational tool for students.

Have you had some success in greening your school or do you know of a school with a great environmental program? Please share that information below – it may help other students and schools who are striving to make their place of learning become more earth friendly!