Sustainable Schools

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.

If you work or lead a school and you want to make your school more sustainable, well done you! Here are a few ideas on how to make that happen.

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Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

Bringing People with you

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.

Some Sustainable School Ideas to Try

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 and become a collection point for Terracycle
  • Ban glitter or switch to eco-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.
  • Book someone to come in and talk to the school about sustainability, like the Rediscovery Centre in Dublin 9 or Susan Adams Education in South Dublin

Talking to Students about Sustainability

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

Use eye-catching Images

I’ve 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

Focus on Animals or Social Justice

In my experience all young children love animals and most older children have a strong sense of social justice.

So for younger kids you might 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.

And for older kids you might talk about indentured slavery in manufacturing and exploitation in the fashion industry and bring in the idea of clothes swapping, repair and upstyling.

Key Talking Points & Activities

Here are some more general sustainability talking points for kids.

  • There is no such thing as ‘throwing away’ Away is somewhere so talk about some of those places
  • 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. Give 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


Hope you find some of those ideas useful.

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

    Liked by 1 person

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