PILLAR 2: SUSTAINABLE RESOURCE USE
“There is a huge school building program underway. All new schools…should be models for sustainable development: showing every child in the classroom and the playground how smart building and energy use can help tackle global warming.
The government is now developing a school specific method of environmental assessment that will apply to all new school buildings. Sustainable development will not just be a subject in the classroom: it will be in its bricks and mortar and the way the school uses and even generates its own power.”
—Tony Blair, September 2004 37
The British Prime Minister made this announcement as part of a major policy address on climate change, which he called “a challenge so far–reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence.”Schools were not the only topic Blair spoke of. Rather they were part of a list that included the role that big industrial energy users, housing developers, retailers, consumers and others must play to, in his words, take “timely action”to “avert disaster.”But importantly for our purposes, schools were one of the sectors at the center of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and rightly so.
After all, schools are, when taken collectively, major consumers of energy and therefore make a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. They are public entities, subject to direct government influence. They also have the potential to become producers of their own power and, more generally, sustainable users of resources. This, together with their ability to teach communities of families, as well as the next generation, by example, makes schools strategic points of action for transforming the world’s energy and resource consumption from a destructive model toward more sustainable patterns of development.
Another key point Blair made in his speech was that “no one nation can resolve”the problem of climate change alone. Yet we here in the US carry a particularly heavy responsibility in this respect. The US is the world’s top consumer of fossil fuels. And with about four percent of the planet’s population, we are responsible for a whopping 25 percent of its global warming gasses. Unfortunately, despite the mounting scientific evidence, and despite the urging of many of our closest allies, the US government has done precious little in the last four years to address the most momentous human–made environmental problem in history.38
If the US is ever to get serious about addressing climate change, we must act on many fronts, including in our schools. So, imagine for a moment what it would mean if every school, school district and education department in the US became sustainable resource users. Imagine if all our schools produced their own power —if they were lit up, heated and cooled by wind and solar energy. Imagine if our schools were built with sustainable materials and designed to be ultra resource efficient—conserving energy and water—providing healthy spaces for children to learn and teachers to teach. Imagine all the photocopiers, printers and classroom projects using recycled paper and toner. And imagine all our school buses running on biodiesel or non–polluting hydrogen fuel.
Institutional Energy Hogs
While achievable over time, this fantastic vision is a far cry from today’s reality. As mentioned in the introduction, the unfortunate truth is that most US school systems today are models of unsustainable development and resource use. This means schools are not only taking a negative toll on the local and global environment, but also that they’re often spending an inordinate amount of money on resources like energy—funds that could be used to pay teachers and buy books.
|Source: Energy Information Administration, 1999 (Includes K-12, universities, pre-schools, others)|
Nationally, K–12 schools use 425 trillion BTU of energy every year, or 7 percent of all energy used by commercial buildings—the category in which the US Department of Energy places them.39 According to the DOE:
Our nation’s K–12 schools are challenged to serve growing student populations and rising community expectations with aging buildings, constrained operating budgets, and ever–increasing energy bills. Each year, taxpayers spend $6 billion on energy for these schools—about 25 percent more than necessary. That $1.5 billion could be redirected to hire 30,000 new teachers or purchase 40 million new textbooks annually.40
With these daunting numbers comes a tremendous opportunity to green our schools.
The Federal, state and local governments are spending about $20 billion a year to build new schools and renovate old ones. And it is estimated that over time, close to $300 billion are necessary for major rehabilitation and new construction.41 The California Department of Education projects that state alone will need more than 35,000 new classrooms to accommodate new students between 2003 and 2008. More than 41,000 more classrooms will need to be modernized during the same period. Total cost: $32.5 billion.42 The Los Angeles School district alone is on track to build 150 new schools by 2010.43 If these resources are dedicated to green building programs the opportunity could be met.
HEALTHY HIGH PERFORMANCE SCHOOLS
Various organizations are moving to promote greater energy efficiency in schools across the country. For instance, mirroring the Department of Energy’s assertion that one–quarter of school energy expenditures are unnecessary, the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS), a quasi–governmental organization in California, asserts that school districts in the state can save 20–30 percent on annual utility costs when applying “high performance design concepts”to schools undergoing renovation. According to CHPS, districts can save even more when building new schools—in the range of 20–40 percent.44 These figures are based on using conventional energy technology—in other words, they don’t take into account the possibility of schools using solar panels or wind turbines to generate their own energy.
With such greater energy efficiency in mind, CHPS, other organizations in various states, from New Jersey, to Illinois, to Oregon, and the Energy Smart Schools program, run by DOE have all developed design methodologies and guidelines for building and renovating what are now being called “High Performance Schools.”45 CHPS defines high performance schools simply as “learning environments that are energy efficient, healthy, comfortable, well lit, and contain the amenities needed for a quality education.”
Our schools are big energy users and contributors to global warming
The benefits, according those involved, include higher test scores stemming from better lighting and air quality; increased average daily attendance as a result of the reduction or elimination of health problems related to “sick building syndrome;”reduced operating costs especially for energy; increased teacher satisfaction and retention; reduced liability exposure; and reduced environmental impacts. Again, CHPS:
High performance school buildings are consciously designed to have low environmental impact. They are energy and water efficient. They use durable, non–toxic materials that are high in recycled content, and the buildings themselves can be recycled. They preserve pristine natural areas on their sites and restore damaged ones. And they use non–polluting renewable energy to the greatest extent possible. As a consequence, high performance school buildings are good environmental citizens [sic], and they are designed to stay that way for the entire life of the building.46
This is not just a theory, but it’s something being put into practice (if on a relatively small scale). For instance more than eleven schools that adhere to the CHPS guidelines have been built, or are in the process of completion in California. Similar projects are underway across the country. A good example of a high performance school is the brand new Clearview Elementary School in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Built to replace an old school on the same site, Clearview cost $6.35 million—just $150,000 more than the average cost for elementary schools in the state. But its projected energy savings of 40 percent will make up the difference in less than a decade. It also is projected to reduce water use by 30 percent. Designers and builders made sure the building had superior indoor air quality, and was built with environmentally sound materials. The school district is incorporating the lessons that the building teaches into its curriculum.47
Imagine if all our schools became sustainable resource users
Some of the elements of a high performance school are as simple as making sure that the design allows for enough daylight to enter the classroom. As Tom Lent of the Healthy Building Network explains, the benefits are multiple:
Daylighting in conjunction with smart lighting control reduces lighting electricity needs, cutting operating costs while eliminating pollution from the electricity that would have been used. This in turn eliminates the waste heat from lights (even efficient fluorescent lights), reducing electricity needs for air conditioning leading to a further round of operating cost cuts and pollution reduction. Done well, it can sometimes even reduce air conditioning capacity needs sufficiently to allow downsizing the air conditioning system leading to lower capital costs. Finally, there is solid scientific evidence that windows and daylighting in classrooms promote better learning and increase test scores.48
The high performance schools “movement,”is an incipient one. But it is gaining momentum. The No Child Left Behind legislation has provisions for Healthy High Performance Schools. There is another bill in Congress that would promote more of the same.49 And in late 2004, the Governor of California mandated that all new state buildings follow green guidelines.50 Yet this movement is still miles away from having a serious impact on the majority of schools in the country, let alone aspiring to the vision of building schools that, for instance, produce all of their own power.
Indeed, none of the CHPS schools are utilizing solar or wind power—and while there are dozens of governmental and non–governmental organizations dedicated to promoting solar schools—the day that most of our schools are energy independent is still far from reality.51 This may be primarily because solar economics have still not reached the point where they are viable for individual schools and small districts. Without significant government subsidies—which implies a political will to finance the transition away from a fossil fuel–based energy model—and/or without a major improvement in solar economics, solar schools (at least in the US) will remain on the margins.
At the same time, there are signs of positive change. One important indicator comes from the realm of higher education. In 2003, after much pressure and lobbying from student activists, the environmental group Greenpeace and others, the University of California agreed to adopt a clean energy and green building policy. The policy mandates, among other things, that ten megawatts (equivalent to the power used by 5,000 homes) of clean, renewable energy will be installed across the ten UC campuses. Currently only 40 megawatts of solar energy are grid–connected in California and 52 megawatts total in the United States.
According to a Greenpeace study, the university’s solar commitment —along with the Los Angeles Community College District’s 2002 pledge to generate ten percent of its new buildings’energy use with on–site renewables —can increase the total amount of grid–connected solar power in the U.S. by nearly 30 percent.52 This in turn has the potential to help create economies of scale that could bring the price of solar down to a more competitive level. Greenpeace and other groups are now bringing this campaign to campuses across the country—helping generate the political will to generate renewable energy.
This step forward not only demonstrates that educational institutions such as Universities and K–12 schools can take the lead in implementing a precautionary approach to addressing serious environmental problems like global warming by reducing their share of greenhouse gas emissions. It also shows that through their resource use and procurement policies, they have the potential to create change more broadly by helping transform the economics of the energy industry.
The average K–12 school that goes 100 percent solar can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 140 metric tons a year—the equivalent of burning 325 barrels of oil, or nearly 16,000 gallons of gasoline.53 So, once again, imagine for a moment: what if all US K–12 schools’electricity were derived from clean, renewable energy such as solar and wind? The answer is that the US would reduce its greenhouse gas output by more than 32 million metric tons every year—the equivalent of 42 days of US imports of Saudi Arabian oil.54
This pollution reduction of course, which would include the elimination of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and other contaminants, would not only help mitigate global warming, it would also contribute to cleaner air and better health locally, along with greater energy independence and a strong jobs–based economy nationally.55
Other opportunities for reducing the greenhouse gasses and air pollution created by school systems abound. For instance, biodiesel—a fuel made from vegetable oil—is making significant strides as an alternative to petroleum diesel for buses. According to the US Department of Energy, biodiesel “is safe, biodegradable and reduces serious air pollutants such as soot particulates, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and air toxics.”56 Biodiesel reduces net emissions of carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas, by 78 percent compared to petroleum diesel.57
|Rot: Composting can reduce landfill use, nourish school gardens and teach many concepts|
Several school districts have adopted biodiesel for their bus fleets, including Medford Township in New Jersey, and Deer Valley Unified in Arizona.58 Meanwhile, various cities are beginning to order hybrid–powered buses, as well as experimental hydrogen fuel cell buses for their fleets. If we invested the resources, our schools could follow suit. Indeed, the more quickly school districts can move away from petroleum diesel and toward alternative fuel–based transportation systems, the air children and communities breathe in and around school yards will be cleaner, and another source of global warming will be diminished.
THE FOUR R'S
Yet another area where many schools and districts can make a difference with respect to sustainable resource use is related to the consumption of office and school supplies. Here bringing the four ecological “R’s,”Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot can help schools to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, and to function in a more environmentally sound fashion.
In other words, the more schools reduce the amount of office and school supplies they purchase, reuse as many materials as possible, and recycle the rest—the more sustainable they will become. And of course, the more they can engage children in this process, the more they can teach. What’s more, schools and school districts can take a further step by developing procurement policies that encourage or mandate the purchase of recycled products.
|The 4 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot|
Similarly, the fourth “R,”rot, involves composting of organic waste such as lunch and yard scraps. Schools can strive to reduce organic waste, and then compost what remains. When done as part of a municipal program this can significantly reduce landfill use. For instance, San Francisco is the first major city to provide composting carts to schools for regular pick–up by the trash company. This, according to Tamar Hurwitz of San Francisco’s Environment Department, sets a precedent for what could ultimately become a national practice.59 And when done locally in a single school context, it can provide a highly educational experience for children that can also help nourish the school gardens discussed in Pillar Three.
Of course, many schools can’t really afford the luxury of, for instance, reducing their paper consumption. Rather they’ve been forced by budget cuts to make those reductions anyway. Instead they wind up asking parents to buy and donate paper. Nevertheless, with the cost coming down and the availability of recycled office products going up, ample opportunity exists to implement a “Four R”strategy in most school settings.
Without solid national data, it is still clear that the current level of waste and pollution produced by schools today is significant. The top waste products coming from schools is paper which makes up nearly half of the school waste stream (see chart). According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, which analyzes schools’waste on a district by district basis, Alameda County schools alone dispose of more than 11,700 tons of paper waste every year. San Diego runs through more than 24,000 tons, and Los Angeles schools go through a whopping 75,600 tons of paper annually.60
Once again, imagine for a moment. What if all the schools in the country were to use recycled, chlorine–free paper, which most currently do not? While there are no facts available for the amount of paper US schools consume, it is clear that simply shifting to recycled content could save a significant number of trees, while also reducing the related air and water pollution related to deforestation and paper production.
School Waste StreamSource: CA Integrated Waste Management Board
Switching to recycled paper makes a big difference for the environment.
If all US schools would switch to recycled paper, they would save a
lot of forests—including the critically endangered forests of
the Southeast United States, where five million acres are logged every
year to provide an astonishing 26 percent of the world’s paper
For each ton of non-recycled office paper that a school district replaces with 35 percent post-consumer content (which is readily available from office supply chain stores), they consume 2,400 pounds less wood, thereby helping to preserve critical forest ecosystems, while keeping the following out of the air and water:
- 734 pounds of greenhouse gases.
- 1.5 pounds of nitrous oxides.
- 3,500 pounds of toxic effluents.62
Unfortunately, few school districts anywhere have procurement policies requiring or even encouraging the purchase of recycled products. Most don’t even have recycling programs. At present, only seven states have mandatory recycling programs that apply to schools. Four more have voluntary guidelines. Various cities also have mandatory initiatives.63
One exception is the organization Recycle Minnesota, which together with the state environment agency, runs a program dedicated to getting schools to teach and practice recycling while purchasing recycled products. According to this group, the recycled products schools could purchase include copy paper, envelopes, latex paint, paper towels, toilet paper, plastic waste bags, inkjet and laser toner cartridges, school lunch trays, cups, plates, and computers.64
A strong recycling program requires work on many levels
In addition to schools’direct purchases, children spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on school supplies, many of which are produced in environmentally unsound and socially unjust ways. For instance, “some brands of school notebooks and filler paper are being sourced directly from rainforests in Indonesia and other sensitive ecosystems,”says Jim Ford, Research Director for the group Forest Ethics. “The companies making these products stand accused of gross human rights and other abuses.”Their products can be found under various non-Mead brand names in WalMart, CVS, Staples and Office Max. 65 The organization Center for a New American Dream runs a back–to–school campaign that encourages children and families to buy responsibly.
When it comes to some cases, however, care must be taken to avoid merely participating in a company’s marketing ploy. For instance, while many computer and printer companies have recycling programs for their toner cartridges, and many schools participate in these programs, one corporation, Epson, is promoting an environmentally destructive practice in the guise of recycling. In September 2004, Epson and the school fundraising organization Funding Factory announced a new program “that allows schools and non-profits nationwide to return ink cartridges for rewards that can boost fundraising efforts and help the environment…The cartridges will be converted to energy through an environmentally sound incineration process.”66 The problem is that incineration is not an environmentally sound practice, and is not recycling. Rather it is a widely discredited technology that produces airborne emissions and hazardous ash waste.67 As Monica Wilson, of the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance remarks: “Epson is misleading kids, teachers and schools by pretending that it is recycling ink cartridges. Many other companies refill ink cartridges or remanufacture them into new cartridges. Epson should do the right thing by truly recycling their cartridges.”68
Avoiding such situations, and truly promoting waste reduction and recycling in schools is a complex task. But it is not at all impossible. Building a strong recycling program and ethic requires work on many levels. At a district and school-wide level, it involves a serious look at budgetary, procurement, administrative and teaching practices. In the classroom it involves instilling and building a culture of sustainablity and participation. At home it means committing to buy environmentally sound school supplies.
At the same time that it is complicated, it is also quite simple if one’s approach is based on the formula of the basic “four R’s”: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot. In other words, before even thinking about recycling, first Reduce your consumption of resources. Then Reuse as many resources as you can. And finally, Recycle or compost (rot) those you can’t reuse.
PILLAR 2: SPECIFIC STEPS FORWARD
In moving toward a proactive, precautionary approach to resource use, the following pragmatic steps would make an excellent start:69
1. PARENTS, STUDENTS AND SCHOOL STAFF SHOULD:
- Organize to make sure each school develops and implements a sustainable resource use policy, including a recycling program, and a recycled products purchasing policy.
- Organize to make each school as energy efficient, and energy independent as possible.
- Demand a high performance learning environment for every child. Insist on ending the deficiencies and inequities in the conditions of public school buildings.
- Pressure school districts, along with local, state and federal governments, to do the following:
2. SCHOOL DISTRICTS AND LOCAL GOVERNMENTS SHOULD:
- Mandate the creation of district–wide recycling programs, along with the procurement of recycled office and classroom supplies.
- Assure that new schools are built or refurbished following Healthy, High Performance school building criteria.
- Develop a district–wide plan to make schools more energy efficient and to transform schools into independent power producers by investing in clean renewable technologies such as solar and wind.
3. STATE EDUCATION DEPARTMENTS AND GOVERNMENTS SHOULD:
- Mandate the creation of state–wide school recycling programs and curricula, along with the procurement of recycled office and classroom supplies.
- Require that all new school design, construction and renovation, undertaken with state funds, adhere to the highest High Performance School Building standards.
- Provide a regulatory climate and financial flexibility that foster high performance schools.
- Create a state–wide efficiency and renewable energy plan, that invests significant resources and provides subsidies to make schools energy independent.
4. THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SHOULD:
- Congress should appropriate the money to fund the Healthy, High Performance School Act, which is part of No Child Left Behind.
- Set and enforce standards, provide technical assistance, and earmark funding to support the creation of healthy, high performance schools.
- Invest significant resources in making the US energy independent, and, as a component of this, support a nation–wide effort to make our schools energy independent.