Schools are an ideal environment in which to strive for sustainable practices. Schools use an abundance of resources, including water and energy. The hundreds of people that use the facilities generate large amounts of waste each week. By implementing sustainable solutions, schools can save money by using less resources and importantly, reduce the impacts of climate change to ensure a bright future for their students. Schools can also impart sustainability knowledge to many students from a young age, who can then positively influence their family’s sustainable practices at home.
I have been researching the initiatives that schools in my local area are undertaking to become more sustainable. As part of my research, I came across several wonderful projects from schools including composting, gardens, water tanks, recycling initiatives, book swaps and even micro forests! It is heartening to see many great projects taking off in the community. It has led me to think, how can sustainability become mainstream in all schools? It seems schools that are successful either have a small handful of passionate teachers or a dedicated sustainability officer who lead the projects. Therefore, as staff cohorts change, there is a risk that projects will languish until a new school sustainability champion is found to take the lead. The big question is: how can sustainability become the norm for schools irrespective of staff interest?
I read an article in a local community newsletter about Bonython Primary School. Their Acting Principal, Marc Warwick, received a Sustainability Leadership Award in recognition of his sustainability work at the school. I reached out to Marc to discover how his school achieved their success. Marc kindly invited me to visit the school to see the projects firsthand.
Bonython Primary School began their journey by engaging with the ACTsmart School Program. ACTsmart provides free advice and support to schools in the ACT to help them in the areas of water, energy, waste, biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions. With the assistance of ACTsmart, the school conducted a waste audit of bins at an assembly in front of parents and students to demonstrate the amount of waste being generated at the school. This was impactful and visualised the waste issue for the school community, setting the scene for their sustainability journey.
A central part of their sustainability journey was to give students agency to devise and implement their own solutions. Students in grades 5 and 6 chose to collect bottles to return to the ACT Container Deposit scheme. Eligible items received a 10c refund, with the money being used initially for the year 6 formal, and is now invested into further sustainability programs within the school. This initiative gave students the opportunity to educate peers on how to collect eligible containers, and use mathematics to calculate both the amount of waste collected and funds raised. This is a great example of how sustainability can be incorporated across the school curriculum, providing students with real world examples to expand key numeracy and literacy skills.
To further reduce the amount of waste entering landfill, the school devised a colour coded bin system for classrooms. Four bins are available in each classroom to collect paper, co-mingled recycling, soft plastics and landfill. Larger kerbside bins were colour coded consistently to enable easy emptying of classroom bins. In addition, a collection point was provided to collect lids from drink bottles, which can’t go into kerbside recycling in the ACT. Students worked with staff members to devise nifty solutions for the design of the bin lids. For example, small holes were made in the top of the soft plastic bin to allow only ‘scrunchable’ soft-plastics to be discarded into the bin and prevent contamination. The opportunity to use problem solving skills to solve a real-world problem is another great example of the practical learning that accompanies sustainable practices in schools.
To further consolidate learning about recycling and waste management, student excursions were arranged to visit the ACT Recycling Discovery Hub. This provided students with insights into how recycling is managed after it is collected from kerbside bins, including sorting and processing.
Marc took things a step further when he met Kathryn Carling, the General Manager of the Little National Hotel at an ACTsmart Business networking event. The Little National Hotel has been widely recognised as a sustainable establishment and Marc saw an opportunity to partner with the hotel to create external sustainability learning opportunities for students. Small groups of students visited the hotel to attend a ‘Sustainability Masterclass’. They toured the facility and experienced first-hand the sustainable features of the hotel including being paperless, using compostable slippers in rooms and using sensor lights to reduce energy consumption when rooms are empty. This opportunity showed students how sustainability can be used in a real-world setting and extended their learning beyond the classroom. Perhaps this opportunity will inspire students to operate sustainable businesses/workplaces in their futures!
The school has a range of other initiatives including composting, growing vegetables, and collecting rainwater from shade structures into water tanks. Staff are now in the process of considering how they can positively impact biodiversity by planting more trees.
Marc and I had some great discussion and he has shared his answers (and wisdom) to the following questions for other schools:
Why did you begin your school sustainability journey?
“It’s the right thing to do. We want to educate our learners for a sustainable future and we ALL have the responsibility to take action and change the way we live to look after our planet and future generations. If we are serious about growing successful learners in our society, the highest most strategic focus on living sustainably is key.”
Why do you think other schools should be implementing sustainable practices?
“As human beings, living in the Anthropocene, we have the responsibility to implement sustainable practices. We have created many of the challenges the earth faces, so we need to find innovative solutions.”
How do you think sustainability can become mainstream in all schools?
“It will take everyone accepting we have a problem and there are things we can all do to be the part of the solution. While it’s a key part of the Australian Curriculum, it’s going to take strong commitment from us all to make the changes we need.”
Can you share any words of advice to other schools starting their journey?
“Start small, but start. Any actions you take will be of benefit, but it’s important to start! Find your people who can support and get out there and make a difference.”
Marc Warwick, Acting Principal, Bonython Primary School
Bonython Primary School is certainly a leader in school sustainability, and they should be very proud of what has been achieved so far. The school community are making their own Local Impact on the environment and are teaching their students key skills to lead sustainable lives into the future.
There are some clear barriers to being sustainable at school with the most notable being around transport of recyclable materials to collection sites. Items collected from Bonython Primary School such as lids and soft plastics can’t go into kerbside recycling. A staff member or volunteer needs to transport these recyclables to a collection site, thus increasing workload. Other items schools have scope to collect include batteries, e-waste, stationary and broken toys, however the same issue of logistics exists. In the future it would be great to see dedicated collection services for schools to assist in the collection of hard to recycle items. This would have a big impact on diverting waste from landfill.
With barriers, there are also opportunities! Collaboration is key to overcoming sustainability challenges and to pave the way forward to sustainable schools becoming mainstream. If your school has some innovative sustainability initiatives on offer, I would love to hear more. Let me know in the comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cover image sourced from the ‘Australian Capital Territory’ and used with permission from Bonython Primary School.
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