Sustainability is a pressing issue that continues to gain widespread attention. Businesses and institutions across various sectors – including schools – are seeking out smarter and greener practices to help deliver a greener future.
Education Matters investigates some of the measures schools are taking to reduce their environmental impact and educate the generations of tomorrow.
There is no doubt that the topic of sustainability remains front and centre, with mounting pressure for businesses big and small to do their part. As of late, there has been a global movement pushing for more sustainable practices across various industries.
Among the most widely publicised here in Australia were the banning of single-use plastic bags by Coles and Woolworths in mid-2018; and the announcements that McDonald’s Australia would eliminate plastic straws from all of its restaurants and Starbucks would phase out plastic straws from 28,000 stores around the world, by 2020.
Sustainability is a hot topic across all levels of education too. Early learning centres, primary schools, secondary schools and universities around the nation are introducing new practices and policies to help reduce their environmental impact and educate students on this important issue.
The Australian Curriculum provides an overview of the context of sustainability across the subjects in the curriculum. Sustainability has also been formally included as part of the Australian Curriculum for over a decade.
“Sustainability was initially identified as a priority in the 2008 Melbourne Declaration – the foundation document for the Australian Curriculum, reveals Janet Davy, Curriculum Director at the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).
The Declaration outlined the goal that, “All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens [who] work for the common good, in particular sustaining and improving natural and social environments [and] are responsible global and local citizens.”
Within the Australian Curriculum, the Sustainability cross curriculum priority is organised into three central themes: Systems, World Views and Futures.
These themes can be reflected across numerous subjects. “Strong opportunities to focus on sustainability exist within the Science, Technologies and Humanities and Social Sciences learning areas. Opportunities also exist within other learning areas,” adds Ms Davy.
“The Australian Curriculum allows for flexible place-based or school approaches to sustainability. Schools make their own decisions about the degree of focus.
Teachers draw on the local environment to enhance learning about sustainability as part of the Australian Curriculum. For example, when planning lessons, teachers consider the needs and abilities of the students, the resources available at the school, and any relevant external events going on, such as Schools Tree day, Clean Up Australia Day, Earth Hour, etc.”
In 2014 a national research conducted by The Australian Education for Sustainability Alliance (AESA) and report by the Australian Association for Environmental Education (AAEE) had significant findings. The research involved a series of structured collaborative discussions and engagement processes to gain the views and insights of mainstream teachers and other target audiences. Sustainability was seen as a major priority for the classroom. According to AAEE’s report, 92 per cent of teachers surveyed agreed that sustainability is important, of value to students, and should be integrated into the curriculum.
Furthermore, 85 per cent of teachers considered it important to personally integrate sustainability into their own teaching practices and 74 per cent considered that students would beneﬁt from being taught about the concepts, knowledge, skills and values of sustainability.
Identifying the need for suitable sustainability teaching resources, the AESA website was launched, followed by the Getting Started with Sustainability website.
“The AESA qualitative and quantitative research has grounded the importance of the work and commitment of AAEE in education for sustainability for all students and teaching staff. We have a clear message to support educators in all sectors to source and present appropriate resources and to work with ACARA to further elaborate the importance of the Sustainability Cross-Curriculum Priority,” says Dr Jennifer Pearson, President of AAEE.
The Getting Started with Sustainability website (sustainabilityinschools.edu.au) provides classroom-ready resources linked to the Australian Curriculum and Sustainability Organising Ideas, with resources available for Prep to Year 10, across nine different subjects. Resources can also be searched via the Australian Curriculum’s three central sustainability themes (Systems, World Views and Futures).
Sustainable philosophies and values taught to students in the classroom extend beyond the school gates, encouraging students to adopt sustainable practices in all parts of their lives. As well as setting the foundations for future sustainability, there are financial gains to be had for schools too. Adopting energy saving technology, for example, can have a significant impact on the bottom line.
Established in 1992, Planet Ark is an Australian not-for-profit organisation tasked with assisting people, governments and businesses to reduce their impact on the environment. It runs various campaigns designed to promote positive environmental actions that underpin its three main objectives: sustainable resource use, low carbon lifestyle and connecting people with nature. This includes several campaigns designed specifically for schools.
“The problems facing the environment are one of the greatest challenges of our times. It gets a lot of attention in the media, social media, documentaries and through other channels. From what I have seen in my own children’s schools and from the responses Planet Ark gets from its campaigns, it really does seem that schools right from preschool to university are taking sustainability seriously,” says Claire Bell, Senior Recycling Campaigns Coordinator at Planet Ark.
For many schools, various sustainability initiatives have proven their worth, resulting in significant savings.
Siena Catholic College in Queensland is among the schools that have taken action to reduce energy costs and C02 emissions, with the school now reaping the benefits. As part of an initiative called Planet Ark Power, which aims to speed up the installation of solar panels on non-residential rooftops across Australia, the school installed an 80kW rooftop solar system, using 308 solar panels and three inverters. Generating around 120,000kW/hour of electricity, the system is expected to save the school an estimated $75,000 in annual energy costs, along with an estimated annual emissions saving of 92 tonnes of carbon – the equivalent of 500,000 kilometres travelled by car.
For Kiama High School in New South Wales, after partnering with ABC program War on Waste to identify areas for sustainability improvement, the school introduced several sustainability measures. These included implementing new recycling systems and waste reduction measures, such as the use of compostable packaging in its canteen. By reducing the amount of waste going into landfill, Kiama has revealed it is saving up to $800 a month in waste management fees.
Sustainability Victoria Director of Communities and Climate Change, Stephanie Ziersch, echoes the importance of reducing waste and energy consumption in schools. “Schools report that uneaten food and food packaging waste are considerable. Heating and cooling appliances along with IT-related equipment are some of the highest energy consumers in schools,” she says. “Sustainability Victoria assists schools to embed sustainability in everything they do through our ResourceSmart Schools program. The program encourages real-life sustainability learning and action while also helping schools save money on their utility costs.”
ResourceSmart Schools supports schools to minimise waste, reduce energy, save water and promote biodiversity to benefit their school and community. It also provides practical support to integrate sustainability into the curriculum.
Since its launch in 2008, ResourceSmart Schools has reached over 1400 Victorian schools. Ms Ziersch reveals participants have saved over $24 million through energy, waste and water savings and avoided over 60,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases. Currently, ResourceSmart Schools is used at over 600 Victorian schools annually, representing an estimated population of 200,000 students.
The program also rewards and recognises students, teachers and schools for sustainability achievements through Sustainability Certification and the annual ResourceSmart Schools Awards.
“There are many different things a school can do to reduce its impact on the environment. For example, Louis De Montfort’s Primary School recently established a unique water habitat area to support students’ understanding of water conservation. The school’s water initiatives are empowering students to see water as a precious commodity. Students are encouraged to engage in experiential, participatory and multidisciplinary approaches to build understanding, knowledge and responsibility about water,” explains Ms Ziersch.
The Victorian primary school monitors its water use through ResourceSmart Schools and the Schools Water Efficiency Program (SWEP) and engages with local wetlands by taking part in activities like testing water quality pH levels for optimum animal and plant growth.
“From driving the popular Steps to Sustainability Conference and establishing partnerships with the local community, Louis De Montfort’s commitment to student water education is inspirational,” Ms Ziersch adds.
Sustainability Victoria also provides teachers with various modules and toolkits to assist in teaching sustainable practices both in and out of the classroom. The ResourceSmart Schools program offers free access to local sustainability experts and an online system that assists schools to plan and track sustainable actions.
“The teachers we talk to say there is more of a focus on sustainability in schools today than in the past. Sustainability as a cross curricula priority has helped with raising the importance of teaching and learning about sustainability. It has also helped increase the number of tools and learning resources available to assist teachers and students to embed sustainability in schools,” explains Ms Ziersch.
Planet Ark also runs a variety of initiatives that are designed specifically for schools, including Schools Tree Day and the Schools Recycle Right Challenge.
There are approximately 3000 preschools, kindergartens, primary and secondary schools across Australia that take part in Schools Tree Day each year, planting native seedlings, trees, shrubs, edibles and flowers; or running nature care projects. The next Schools Tree Day will be held on Friday 26 July 2019.
The Schools Recycle Right Challenge takes place annually in November as part of National Recycling Week.
“For both Schools Tree Day and the Schools Recycle Right Challenge, Planet Ark provides guides and activities for teachers and students, curriculum aligned lesson plans produced in conjunction with not-for-profit teaching resource provider Cool Australia, competitions and posters, factsheets and other resources,” says Ms Bell.
“Students are very knowledgeable and often drive positive environmental actions in schools. It is vitally important to engage students at an early age so that taking environmentally responsible actions in their daily lives become habits that will last them a lifetime.”
By taking measures to reduce their own waste and energy consumption, schools are not only setting an important example for their students, but doing their part to help promote a more sustainable future for generations to come.
“Education for sustainability develops the knowledge, skills, values and world views necessary for people to act in ways that contribute to more sustainable patterns of living,” Ms Davy adds. “Sustainability education is futures-oriented, focusing on protecting environments and creating a more ecologically and socially just world through informed action.”
Planet Ark outlines some simple and effective steps schools can take to become more sustainable:
• Set up proper recycling systems and educate students on how to use them.
• Encourage waste-free lunches and reduce the use of single-use plastics.
• Recycle paper and cardboard.
• Recycle printer cartridges, batteries and other e-waste.
• Reduce paper use and reuse where possible.
• Collect and recycle soft plastics.
• Ban plastic straws.
• Host plastic-free and low waste events such as fete days.
• Set up a composting or worm farming system and school veggie patch.
• Switch to solar panels and install rainwater tanks.
• Encourage children and parents to walk or ride to school.