In Sight, in Mind: A School learns to how to turn waste into (common) wealth

The roofless, circular chicken coop was an eye-sore in the manicured courtyard of the international school campus.  Curious students were approaching the coop and reacting with loud “yucks” and holding their noses at what they saw, and smelled, inside. And that was precisely the point. The international school in China hired us to help them identify opportunities to shrink their environmental footprint by saving energy and water and reducing waste. “Some schools have lovely statues and fountains,” said the school’s green-champion principal, “we have a gigantic, stinky waste basket.”

The oversized wastebasket was an idea students came up with in a task force “Green Team” we organized to collect data on school and generate ideas to make it green. Students argued that the community was unaware of the negative impact of all waste it produced because they couldn’t see it – or smell it – it was “out of sight, out of mind.”

So they proposed putting a visible symbol of their school’s profligacy, something nobody in the school could miss and a message nobody could ignore. Students spread the word for everyone to avoid using the normal bins and put all their waste into the chicken wire bin the size of kiddy pool with waist high walls. It was like a reverse archeology project – everyday it filled with the sedimentation of school life visible to all. “Do we really drink that much diet soda,” one student remarked, “doesn’t that stuff cause cancer?”

Each type of waste layered in the bin held up a mirror to the students and taught them a direct-sensory lesson about their health and environment in a way books and websites could not. Our back-of-the-napkin audit showed the bin should hold about two to three weeks of the school’s waste depending on how much participation there was, but the campaign was so successful it was overflowing after just one week. The environmental impact was there for all to see, and to find effective ways to reduce, recycle and reuse.

The student green team segregated the waste into different streams and looked for recycling alternatives for each. They made sure the city government was actually recycling the aluminum cans, glass bottles and paper they collected – a bold stance to take in China where information about city services is not readily available to the public. They even took on the issue of e-waste in the country, which is the dumping ground for the world’s hazardous electronic detritus. Shouldn’t China’s schools advocate for safer, more responsible ways to dispose of the things it makes and the world consumes?

They researched composting methods to transform biomass from landscaping, food and other waste into rich soil. “I discovered through our composting project that our school was farmland just twenty years ago,” commented one student in the school’s environmental club.

They also discovered that despite city’s rapid urbanization and sprawl that paved over much of the agricultural land, there were still many farms operating in the suburbs surrounding the school.  And that gave them an idea: why not donate the compost they were making in the school in exchange for the farmers produce?  Their ability see over the boundary wall of the school allowed them to turn a negative impact into a positive one and multiplied the social and economic benefits of connecting to community.

The need for meaningful sustainability conversations: Inside & Out

As the wave of sustainability education begins to take shape at international schools and the awareness of both its purpose and its value increases it it slowly taking shape as a field of its own accord. A greater number of schools, for example, now include a member of faculty/staff whose job it is (often among other things) to somehow assess sustainability indicators and, simultaneously, educate the community (often both adult and child) in sustainable practices, decisions and management. But considering how new the field is there is often a great big gap between the needs of a school and the skills and abilities of the person(s) in charge of such structural change.

Part of the concern is that, once in the world of sustainability, one recognizes just how all pervasive sustainability is and needs to be. This is sometime ‘missed’ by other members of the professional community who see it as a small topic with increasing relevance. The generation of those who are currently teaching and administering in schools around the world have not been privy to a formal education in sustainability and, as such, they sometimes view the issue as topical, to be dealt with as a side note or dealt with in some “eco” event. These arguably superficial impressions can be somewhat typical in schools that, understandably, are trying to do their best to keep up with the best practices of teaching and learning. But truth be told sustainability is part and parcel of everything that schools do, whether that is in the curriculum, facilities, whatever.

To put that burden on one person – say an advisor of an eco club – is a huge expectation particularly if that person is also trusted to teach students full time. Though sustainability education is best infused into most all curricula, and is very pertinent regardless of grade level, it is quite complex for someone who wants to do a good job at it. Perhaps there is also someone in the facilities department who is focusing on ensuring that sustainable solutions are providing a school with a beneficial return on investment.

Life for such a faculty/staff member can be lonely, even if rewarding. The resources, though increasing, are still rather scarce, their quality unknown. Experiences are short. Opportunities, even with a plethora of good will and enthusiasm, can be thwarted by budgets, lack of expertise, time and/or energy. Of course with this work environment it becomes essential to team up. But with whom?  Sometimes the curricular connections to facilities seem reasonable (and, indeed, preferable). After all, why not involve students in the study of energy, for example, in real time?  Sometimes this comes within a department, particularly if there are like-minded people available to bounce ideas off of. But even then the ability to move forward can be slower then hoped for. But sometimes it seems like one is “on their own”.

The good thing these days is that, as schools start hiring sustainability coordinators, or service coordinators, or create expectations for engagement (which they generally do), so too do cross-overs exist with people in similar positions in other schools. Certainly people in other schools won’t have the same take on things but therein lies its big advantage. It’s good to have people on the inside for the practical application of ideas, but it is equally as important to have people on the outside – who share the experience in different settings – to collaborate with, to share ideas, to brainstorm of share resources. This turning of an often lonely experience into a more professionally social one opens doors, allows for divergent and highly creative thinking, can provide authentic discourse for both students and teachers and ultimately allows for the professional conversations that need to take place.

So, if you are one of those sustainability people, either formally (by title) or not, considering joining communities of practice online, in your school or across town. Much like a support group these people will give you authentic feedback on your thoughts, provide you with tools and resources, and generally do everything that you might find difficult to do on your own in your school. If your school or city doesn’t have such a group, why not start one?  Formality need not be a requirement and even with two people such groups can be hugely beneficial for you, your understanding and skills involved with sustainability education, and certainly for the kids whose future we’re building.