Sustainable Schools

If like me you’ve school age kids you may have despaired at the wasteful ways of schools, or maybe your school is a paragon of sustainability. My kids are in a great school in terms of academics and teaching quality, but boy is it wasteful. My heart aches every time I see laminated certificates, or requests for plastic folders and single-use pens coming home. I’ve offered to go in and help the school reduce its use of plastic with the Plastic Free Schools initiative but no teacher was interested in leading it, which was very disappointing. I am amazed that despite all the talking schools do about sustainability, particularly to the children, they generally engage in very wasteful practices.

Nothing mentioned in this article has been sponsored. It’s all just my own personal opinion. If you like your sources to remain independent then please;
share this article, or
buy me a coffee on Ko-fi, or
make a small monthly donation via Patreon. or
with a one-time donation via Paypal
Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

As always it’s easier to implement change when those affected by change are on board so if you’re a principal / teacher / parent’s association seeking to bring about change take the time to run a few talks or workshops or send a letter home explaining what you want to achieve and why. If there’s resistance consider running a trial first and explain to everyone how long the trial will run, how you’ll elicit feedback on the changes and how a decision on the trial will be reached and communicated to everyone. People are generally more open to trials than permanent changes, particularly when they feel part of the process.

Here’s a list of suggested changes you can try out at your school;

  • Replace single-use bottled water in favour of reusable bottles and install water fountains in the school or identify taps with drinkable water in the school building.
  • If your school gives milk to the children ditch the individual milk cartons with straws and reusable cups, filled from a 3 litre of milk instead.
  • When doing healthy eating week switch from the wasteful individual portions of fruit given out by Food Dudes to whole fruits like mandarins, bananas and apples.
  • Encourage parents to ditch new plastic covers on workbooks and to reuse any plastic covers that they have on text books that are used year in year.
  • Encourage parents to reuse partially used copy books the following year.
  • Switch from twistables to crayons or colouring pencils on book lists instead. If sharpening is a concern the school could invest in an electric pencil sharpener for each classroom.
  • Move away from single-use workbooks as per the Government’s circular 0032
  • On book lists ask for refillable pens rather than single-use pens and ensure that all teacher put the same brand on subsequent book lists..
  • On book lists ask for refillable markers instead of single use versions. If the supplier of these is far from your school they could be bought on behalf of the parents.
  • Have segregated bins in the classroom with clear signs on what goes in which. Do a weekly audit to see if students understand what goes in each bin. Measure the amount of waste in the bins, set a realistic target for waste reduction and give a prize to the class when it’s reached.
  • Put a compost bin in the class for food waste, tissues and pencil shavings, non-painted paper.
  • Facilitate and encourage a pre-owned uniform swap / sale. Also consider leaving a rail with pre-owned items in a prominent position in the school to facilitate swapping out of uniforms during the year.
  • Do a workshop / talk on package-free lunches and give homework passes to children with package-free lunches.
  • Give homework passes to reduce the weight of backpacks to encourage more kids to walk to school.
  • Trial kids bringing in their own hand towels for hand drying to reduce the amount of single-use paper towels being used.
  • Ban disposable cups for events and use washable crockery instead.
  • Join Recreate in Dublin 24 for art supplies from existing materials.
  • Ensure that merchandise bought for students is reusable, refillable, recyclable/compostable and ethically made. Klee Paper in Dublin 7 offer products like refillable markers, low-toxin glue sticks, recycled paper etc
  • Switch to low-toxin cleaning products and reduce amount used in the school. Linea Zero is a range of professional cleaning products that are fully biodegradable and based on plant ingredients. Green Leaf Services offer office cleaning services with low-impact products within the Dublin area.
  • Ban the lamination of paper.
  • Switch to a low-ink font like Calibri or Century Gothic, which uses 30% less ink than Arial.
  • Switch to 100% recycled paper.
  • Earn money by becoming a collection point for Terracycle
  • Ban glitter including eco-glitter, which has been shown to damage plant roots as much as regular glitter.
  • Use flour and water as glue instead of PVA
  • Create An Ark for nature around the school.
  • Facilitate carpooling and offer dedicated spaces to carpooling staff if possible. Staff should be able to dip in and out of carpooling and not have to commit to it permanently.
  • Join the Irish Schools Sustainability network
  • Lobby the Irish Minster for Education to bring in a scheme like the Climate Change Teaching Academy for UK teachers
  • Sign your school up for the Globe Air Quality Campaign. It’s all about improving the air quality around schools.

If you’re lucky / unlucky enough to be invited into your kids’ school to talk to them about waste it can be hard to know where to start. Here are some suggestions on simple / relatable topics to talk  to them about.

I’ve also got a Environmental Activism Board on Pinterest that you’re welcome to pull some images off if you need.

You might also like this searchable database of climate related images, and this wonderful graphic representation of our waste problems.

Project Drawdown has some good infographics as does Our World in Data

  • There is no such thing as ‘throwing away’ Away is somewhere so talk about some of those places
  • Talk about sea creatures and the impact of litter on them and how reducing ‘stuff’ is a good way to help the problem, and then maybe do a litter pick around the school environs.
  • You could do a ‘Less Plastic’ poster workshop or give it as a homework.
  • Talk about packaging in lunches and how we can avoid or reduce it.
  • Talk to them about what they could make do, reuse, or repurpose instead of buying something. Talk about a few examples.
  • Show some simple swaps, reusable bottle etc
  • Talk about the waste of McDonald etc meals. Do they really need that toy?
  • Talk about why we need to avoid single-use cups, straws etc
  • Discuss the danger of balloons / water bombs to wildlife and discuss alternatives
  • Talk to them about food waste, what they waste and what could they do about it.
  • Talk to them about consumption and how buying better toys that we use for a long time is better for the planet than lots of cheap toys.
  • Talk about how to help pollinators in your garden and ask them to pledge to do one of the suggestions.
  • Talk about sustainable crafting; not recycling painted paper, using salt dough instead of polymer and make glue from flour and water.
  • You could read an age appropriate eco-book like those listed in my article Zero Waste Kids.
  • Book someone to come in and talk to the school about sustainability, like the Rediscovery Centre in Dublin 9. (Full disclosure, I’m based out there 1 day a week with my Masters, but they’re a non-profit)
  • I also came across this excellent video about climate change that would be ideal for teenagers and another one asking ‘Is Easy Worth it? Also there’s the fabulous poem / rap called Earthrise by an American poet Amanda Gorman.
  • Ted Talk have great series of videos explaining aspects of the climate crisis, but be warned some of them are quite scary.
  • The Christmas add by supermarket Iceland is a lovely short animation explaining the impact of deforestation and the orangutan. Hard to believe this was banned for being too political! And in 2020 Greenpeace released a follow up called There’s a monster in my kitchen
  • For older kids this video by Greenpeace is all about the racism inherent in the climate crisis
  • I also came across this educational resource on the circular economy for secondary schools
  • And a Lesson plan for Earth Day on Climate Change and the Circular Economy by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It’s fits into the UK Geography curriculum.
  • Also the website Biodiversity in Schools has a load of resources for sale to help educate kids on local biodiversity plus kits to get a school garden going.
  • And I really love what the organisation Bird Brain is all about – getting children enthused about wild birds.
  • If you really want to geek out on the value of composting for nature this is a great downloadable guide from An Taisce.
  • And the Kerry Biosphere website has a downloadable Teacher Resource pack which accompanied some webinars they gave in 2022.
  • And for some free biodiversity resources the UK organisation Discover the Wild has some fab Downloadable ID sheets for plants and insects

The Green Schools Committee website has a series of resources to help schools get their green flags in relation to waste and litter reduction and climate change action. Unfortunately most of the actions seem to be for the children to do personally, in school and at home. There appears to be very little advice on how schools can become more sustainable themselves. Maybe this is why I see so many unsustainable schools with green flags.

Best of luck


PS – You might also be interested in these articles

Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

2 thoughts on “Sustainable Schools

  1. Alot of schools do lots of these recommendations already
    Ie healthy lunches all the time ( lunches spot checked
    Kids bring home their waste Etc
    Renting books scheme
    Green committee in school

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: