When it comes to creating a culture of sustainability, leaders within K-12 have a unique opportunity. Not only can schools make significant, cost-effective, district-wide change that effects an entire community, but they are presented with the chance to influence children at an age when sustainable practices and eco-friendliness can be taught as second nature.
Across the board, most schools are heavy purchasers of plastic single-use items such as straws and water bottles. Procurement, in tandem with school administration, can play a big part in re-evaluating these purchases, and determining ways to replace these items.
Let’s say you decide to tackle the issue with plastic water bottles, which are a huge source of waste. So, wherever you have a water fountain in the school, you also install a bottle refilling station. And let’s say the administration, in support of this initiative, sends a letter home to all parents encouraging them to provide reusable water bottles to their children in place of purchasing water bottles every day. Perhaps the school even makes a one-time investment into branded water bottles to provide each student.
For a small investment, you have now taken steps to greatly reduce the use of plastic water bottles within your school.
The sooner schools shift their thinking and introduce children to more sustainable materials in their every day lives, the better equipped they will be to adopt a green mentality. It will be second nature to them.
There seems to be a misconception that bulk buying is wasteful, especially when it comes to food. However, with single-serve foods and snacks, there comes significant amount of waste materials. For example, in one small serving of a cup of applesauce, you have a plastic cup, a plastic or foil cover, and a plastic spoon with which you eat it.
If you already know that applesauce is a popular item in your cafeteria, why not instead buy it in bulk to serve it on the lunch line? The lunch monitor can control the amount that goes into each plate and, instead of hundreds of empty plastic cups ending up the trash, you have one large empty container going to recycling with the same amount of children fed.
You will ultimately save more and waste less by minimizing the materials needed to feed your students.
The earlier you teach a child a habit, the more ingrained that habit gets in their mind and their actions. When it comes to sustainability, instilling a sense of respect for the planet can be taught within the schools – not only by introducing children to sustainable practices like refillable water bottles, but also through projects within their classrooms.
When my daughter was in elementary school, I did a successful pilot program with her class using vermicomposting. This is a composting process wherein red wiggler worms eat food scraps and create nutrient-rich soil. The teacher and I purchased a vermicomposting kit, which cost around $85, and set it up in the classroom. When put together, the kit looked like a small village with levels through which the children can observe the worms.
Every day, the children would take their food scraps such as apple cores, lettuce, and sandwich crusts and feed the worms. The worms would reproduce and eat more of the lunch scraps and ultimately excrete worm casings, which is a nutrient-dense soil amendment – a very effective fertilizer. This fertilizer was then used in the school’s vegetable garden, the vegetables were used to make lunch for the children, the lunch scraps were fed to the worms, and the cycle continued.
So, what did the children learn? How to manage their food waste and the incredible power of composting, all for a small investment on the school’s end. Plus, the project resulted in something useful for the school to save money on landscaping and food costs.
Ultimately, it’s important for schools to look at the products and materials they are purchasing and consider how they can purchase as much as possible that can be recycled. It’s a challenge for procurement, as some things may cost more money, but much can be offset by cost avoidance. By not throwing as many things away, you’re effectively paying a waste hauling company less money, and saving in the long run.
And while you’re reducing your costs, you’re also teaching invaluable lessons to students. The goal is to make this normal for these children so that sustainable practices aren’t just something they’re doing – it’s who they are.
It will take time, but making these changes will have a lasting impact on your budget and your students.
Tony Schifano is the Founder and CEO of Antos Environmental,
which provides consulting and services focused on sustainable, environmentally-conscious waste management solutions
Learn more about E&I’s competitively solicited Antos contract.