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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.

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