Pulp Fiction: How finding local sources of recycled paper helped a school go green and build community

In developing countries the connections between international schools and local communities can often be tenuous. Elite international schools can be islands of prosperity and privilege amidst poor urban hinterlands. Far from sharing resources with local communities, these schools either make disproportionate claims on already-strained public infrastructure or opt out altogether by creating parallel-privatized systems of energy generation, water treatment and transportation. Concerns about security, especially if they are diplomatic schools, can result in campuses that look and act like walled fortresses.

Some international schools are chipping away at these walls of exclusion and finding mutual benefits in partnership with their neighbors. In Delhi, we worked closely with a school that was searching alternatives to using imported paper. They sought to align their purchasing policies with LEED standards and were importing hundreds of reams of FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) paper every year from North America. To their credit, the school leadership questioned the environmental wisdom of this policy and asked us to do a carbon-footprint analysis of the paper source and supply chain as part of our campus-wide sustainability audit.

We discovered that the paper supply did indeed from start from sustainably-managed forests in Canada, but its journey halfway across globe added so much CO2 to its footprint that its use in India didn’t make sense from an environmental or even economic point of view. It would be like a New York City restaurant buying grass-feed lamb from New Zealand and calling it sustainable. So we looked for local green alternatives to the school’s imported paper, starting with what other schools in the neighborhood were already using. It turns that that Delhi, like most Indian cities, has extensive networks of informal recycling, in which everyday waste is transformed into valuable consumer products. The city banned plastic carry bags several years ago, so newspaper is collected and repurposed into surprising durable shopping bags, with the added benefit that you can catch up on any news you missed while waiting in line at the grocery store.

The local green alternative to imported office paper was literally right under our nose. One of the oldest and famous slums in New Delhi grew haphazardly no more than a hundred meters from the school on a rocky unclaimed piece of land to serve the diplomatic community, first as it construction laborers thirty years ago and later as its drivers and maids. The slum is also a beehive of recycling activities, including paper collection and sorting.

So the downstream solution for the school to replace imported paper was to simply walk across the street and negotiate with the local recycled paper vendors to collect the school’s used paper. The upstream solution was also not hard to find by looking in local markets. India produces export-quality paper from agricultural waste like rice and coconut husk, and it actually worked out be cheaper than the paper the school was importing.

By asking the right questions, doing some investigative digging, and linking up with existing community resources, one school in India was able to find a local, low-cost green alternative to expensive and energy-intensive imported paper. It was a win-win for the school and environment. A third win was for the relationship between the school and local community; as they started working together, they found other opportunities for students and residents to share knowledge and resources, and build lasting relationships.

Compass Education: Whole-School Strategies and Approaches to ESD

RCE Penang Webinar Series 2015 

 21 May 2015, 3-4 pm (UTC+8)

Compass Education, represented by Robert Steele (Systainability Asia), will be presenting webinar training module on RCE Penang Webinar Series 2015 highlighting the current work being done with schools in Asia by Compass Education to embed sustainability education into all aspects of school mission and culture. Participants will learn the theory of a whole-school sustainability approach, and be introduced to the tools and processes required to lead and manage effective school transformation through the infusion of systems thinking and sustainability into the curriculum, teaching and learning, leadership and governance, facilities, and community engagement. School case studies will be presented to show what can be achieved in student learning outcomes as well as for schools and communities.

Who should attend the webinar:

  • School managers and administrators
  • Pre-service and in-service teachers
  • Government agencies
  • Not-for profit associations that support school ESD Developments

Join us on this free webinar on 21 May 2015 from 3-4 pm (UTC+8) Penang, Malaysia time via goo.gl/41e1XG!

For more information about RCE Penang Webinar Series 2015 visit www.rce-penang.usm.my.




Linking Green Schools to Local Community Resources

The kitchen staff at the international school in Jakarta, Indonesia where I was hired to conduct a campus-wide sustainability audit looked like they had been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. I was interviewing them with the help of a Bahasa-speaking teacher because we were stumped as to why their food waste was so small, not much more than one 5-kg garbage bag per day, compared to similar k-12 schools we had worked with. Normally we would find high resource use and waste generation in a school’s food program, and along with corresponding opportunities for saving energy and reducing waste. We jokingly refer to it as a school’s “low-hanging fruits and vegetables.”

I tried to reassure them that it was actually a good thing to have so little waste, and I certainly wasn’t accusing them of stealing banana peels. I was just curious: “There are hardly any leftovers at the end of the day, what do you do with all the food scraps?” we asked. After some awkward silences and sidelong glances, a young woman in replied “oh, we throw it over the wall.”

I discovered after some more questions that the wall divided the wealthy international school from the neighboring “kampung,” (“village,“ in this case a sprawling urban slum, a city within a city). They were not just “throwing it over;” in fact, the staff had established relationships with local kampong residents who used the food waste for garden composting and to feed an extended family of cats, who did their part by keeping the rat population under control.

This was just one small example of the extensive sharing network that had developed over the years between the school, which was founded in the 1970s, and the local community, which today is part of a complex symbiotic economy in the city of formal production and informal recycling and reuse.

Conventional approaches to sustainability often overlook these important social and economic linkages between buildings, particularly gated campuses, and their local communities. I’ve been a green building consultant for the last ten years in the US and Asia, starting back when LEED was routinely confused with a town in Northern England. It’s actually singular not plural (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and is the widely-used US-based standard for certifying green buildings.

LEED has been hugely successful due in part to its feel-good, triple bottom-line approach to sustainability: green is good for business and the earth. And it’s been proven that green buildings can save significant amounts of energy and resources in their design and operations, which makes good business sense. That is certainly my line to clients when I work as a consultant: I can help save you money and, as an added benefit, do some good for the planet. But at best it’s a half-truth. Although successful in terms winning easy converts to the cause, the conventional green-is-good argument commits a sleight of hand by equating doing “less bad,” in terms of consuming less energy, water and generating less waste, to doing real positive, sustainable good for the environment.

As green consultants we are paid to deliver the goods – money saved, better products, bigger markets – and as a result we deal only with what we can see, measure and monetize. But we miss a lot in the process – in fact we miss what’s actually most important in the transition to a low-carbon future: people. The equivalency between reducing the negative impact of buildings and businesses and enhancing the positive benefits does a disservice by taking people’s awareness and actions out of the equation.

The real catalyst that transforms a building with a small carbon footprint into one with a big social impact are the people who work in it, live in it, and change their lives and others’ according to its underlying principles. And at the end of the day, each one hotter than the last, that’s the transformation that counts.

In my green consulting work with schools around Asia, I’ve learned from teachers and students to measure not only the negative impacts of a school’s operations but also the positive benefits of its community service and environmental programs. In the next three posts to Prevailing Wins I share stories from three international schools that are exploring new ways to address environmental challenges they face by transforming awareness and behavior beyond their own walls.

Welcome to Prevailing Winds


Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 7.54.59 PMThe winds of change are in the air in education. We can feel them everywhere. We see schools asking fundamental questions about what kids should know, and how they should know it. There is a technology revolution taking place that’s disrupting conventional ways of teaching and learning. Just sit down with any school-age child today and see how differently she interacts and uses information from her bookbound parents. Debates are swirling around the Common Core, IB, standardized testing, smart games in schools and smart buildings to learn in. In this, the maiden voyage of our Prevailing Wins blog platform, we put up our sails and catch these winds of change. We are a group of educators, mainly based in Asia, but looking to expand our network globally. We are united by our passion for sustainability – as a way of seeing the Earth, learning about it, and living on it. We take a systems approach to understanding the complexity and beauty of nature. In our roles as educators we look for lessons in the natural environment to teach about sustainability. We invite other educators at all levels to contribute your ideas, innovations and lessons learned about teaching sustainability wherever you find yourself. Tell us about your sustainable “prevailing wins,” and non-prevailing loses, what inspires and motivates you to change the world, one student at a time. The blog will is co-moderated by Kevin Sullivan and Laurence Meyers.

Blog topics include:

  • Technology in education
  • Systems thinking and experiential learning
  • Service and community engagement
  • Environmental activism
  • Green schools, sustainable buildings
  • Sustainable lifestyles
  • Innovation and design