Taking sustainability to the streets: greening up my kid’s school

OK- why aren’t there recycling bins in the cafeteria?

I noticed the bins were visibly lacking when I attended my child’s lunch this last week- and began to look into why.

According to the PTA and the school’s administrative assistant, beyond recycling paper, the local government does not pick up their bulk recycling, such as cans or bottles. A volunteer would have to come and remove the recycling materials themselves- and unfortunately, I don’t personally own a truck to take on that responsibility.

So what can we do?

Well, I started to look possibly “greening up” the school:

1.) According to the EPA, October is Recycling Awareness month for kids! Who knew? Perhaps the EPA needs to do a better job with their marketing. I guess just another sign of cost cutting – so how can we get the word out? Well, for one, did you know that the EPA has a new student website? And on the site, there are actually “games” you can utilize to help educate kids on the subject.

The EPA has launched a new student’s website with games, homework resources, awards, events and contests. With videos, service projects and a student blog to boot, students will enjoy exploring this website. Parents and teachers can also find resources and lesson plans. Teachers will find links to a wide array of environmental webinars, publications, science-based lesson plans, activities and ideas.

Check it out at: “It’s Your Environment.” http://www.epa.gov/students/

Their suggestion on the subject was:

How can I reduce waste at school?

Students, parents, and teachers can all make a difference in reducing waste at school. By practicing the “3 Rs” of waste reduction—reduce, reuse, and recycle—we can all do our part.

The EPA was directed to set standards for radi...
The EPA was directed to set standards for radioactive materials under Reorganization Plan No. 3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  • EPA’s Tools for Schools Kit
    • If you bring your lunch to school, package it in reusable containers instead of disposable ones, and carry them in a reusable plastic or cloth bag, or lunch box. Bring drinks in a thermos or water bottle instead of disposable bottles or cartons.
    • If you buy lunch, take and use only what you need: one napkin, one ketchup packet, one salt packet, one pepper packet, one set of flatware. Remember to recycle your cans and bottles, and separate your waste if your school has separation bins!

Ok, I was somewhat disappointed, by their lack of follow through on how to get this idea to trickle down to the local government level, and perhaps help schools incorporate the initiative.


But I did find that there was information I could use to inspire the school, based on their inherent competitive nature, from an award standpoint:


The Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes K-12 Deadline: April 30, 2013
This award recognizes young people who have shown extraordinary leadership in making our world better in a number of diverse ways including protecting the environment.

The NEED Project’s Annual Youth Awards Program for Energy Achievement Deadline: April 15, 2013

All NEED schools have outstanding classroom-based programs in which students learn about energy. Some schools have student leaders who extend these activities into their communities. To recognize outstanding achievement and reward student leadership, The NEED Project conducts the National Youth Awards Program for Energy Achievement.

Sieman’s We Can Change the World Challenge Deadline: Mid March, 2013
The Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge encourages students, working with a teacher/mentor, to identify environmental issues of concern and create sustainable, reproducible improvements in their local communities.

How Do I Green My School?

I also looked into another program, which might hold the key to help make it stick, by possibly incentivizing the idea of becoming a “Green Star” (think more funding or grants):

There is a “Green Star” program, which helps schools gain “certification” via:

Green Schools Parent Toolkit and the “What’s Your Green Dream School?” Contest made possible by a grant from Full Circle Fund.

Start a Green School Program at Your School

There’s always room for improvement!

Enter: the Green Star Schools Program: www.greenstarschools.org

The purpose of the Green Star Schools Program is to honor, support, and recognize the important work that teachers, schools, and districts are doing to advance environmental sustainability; to create healthy and vibrant work and learning communities that enhance academic performance; and to foster intellectual growth, creativity, and innovation through an experiential program where students learn environmental stewardship and take action to reduce the school’s environmental footprint.

Those seeking recognition address three primary components: Institutional Commitment, Education through Action, and Facilities/Operations & Maintenance. Following this program may lead your school to become eligible for recognition under the federal Green Ribbon Schools award program.

Choose among these seven Environmental Pathways to focus your work and activities. Each of these pages provides downloadable Checklists, Guides, Audit Tools, and links to Lessons Plans to take action:

To become recognized as a Green Star School, you will use the Checklists and Guides to follow these Seven Steps:

  1. Form a Green Team
  2. Adopt Green Policies
  3. Conduct a School Environmental Audit
  4. Create an Action Plan to Green Facilities and Operations
  5. Evaluate Progress on Reducing the School Environmental Footprint
  6. Integrate Greening into the Curriculum
  7. Reach out and Celebrate to Share Success


There are 3 levels of recognition in the Green Star Schools Program. To be recognized, your school must complete the mandatory requirements and additional “Reach for the Stars” requirements in a varying number of Environmental Pathways of your choice:

  • 1 Star: Complete Requirements in 2-3 Environmental Pathways of your choice
  • 2 Stars: Complete Requirements in 4-5 Environmental Pathways of your choice
  • 3 Stars: Complete Requirements in 6-7 Environmental Pathways of your choice

Use the Checklists, Audit Tools, and Resource Guides to complete your selected Environmental Pathways.

For 1 and 2 Stars, results are self-reported and we will send you a certificate. For 3 Stars, we will verify your activities. Please email info at green schools dot net with your contact information so we can follow-up with your recognition.

Green Star Schools was initiated through collaboration among the non-profit Green Schools Initiative, county government agencies Alameda’s Stopwaste.org, San Mateo’s Recycleworks.org, Alameda County Office of Education, and San Jose’s Go Green Schools. Each partner is now implementing Green Star Schools through their own programs.

Please visit the Green Star Schools website to use online calculator tools to estimate the carbon emissions reductions of your actions, to track your results, and compare your efforts with other schools: www.greenstarschools.org (forthcoming Fall 2012)

You can also choose one from our “Environmental Footprint Calculators” page.

Read about the Green Star Schools Program at Berkeley’s Rosa Parks Elementary School here.

Learn about ways to empower your kids and your school to make a difference:

Green Schools Parent Toolkit

The Parent Toolkit gives you quick and easy steps for greening your child’s school, along with inspiring and practical information that will help you and your school’s Green Team to safeguard children’s health, reduce your school’s environmental footprint, and save money. ( I am hoping to use this when I meet with the PTA members)

How to get your child’s school going green! Take a look at the Parent Toolkit to green your school: (which I hope to use in discussions with the school board)

For each of the steps, we provide links to more information and tools; everything from our “How Green is Your School?” Quiz to waste-free lunch guidelines, and from greening your PTA events
to student action projects and beyond:

1. Watch our 3-minute video – Share the video with friends or download it from the Vimeo site to show at your next PTA meeting, or to your child’s principal or teacher, to get them inspired and persuade others to join in greening your school.

  1. Form a Green Team – Establish a Green Team with other parents, teachers, students, and staff who will work together on green school activities and ways to engage the whole school community in saving resources. Use our tips for starting a Green Team.
  2. Make an inventory – Take our “How Green is Your School?” Quiz and find out what your school is already doing and what else needs to be done. Bring the Quiz to your next PTA meeting and involve other parents and school staff in answering the questions. Volunteer to help your child’s teacher engage students in hands-on audits where they can use their math and analysis skills to analyze the school’s garbage, energy, carbon, or water footprints. These kinds of real-world, hands-on lessons are shown to improve academic achievement.
  3. Take action with students – Work with your child’s class, your Green Team, or a student club or After School program to choose one area from the inventory or audit that you want to improve. Follow actions done by these schools – or dream up your own! Share our Tips for Parents one-pager with your PTA.
  4. Change your own habits – Parent behaviors play a big role in determining a school’s footprint and set examples for children. On your own, you can make a meaningful difference through efforts like these:

    1. Green your PTA events and fundraising;
    2. Pack a waste-free lunch;
    3. Walk, bike, carpool or transit to school;
    4. Buy environmentally-friendly and recycled school supplies; and
    5. Serve healthy food and get outside with your kids.
  5. Celebrate your success – Organize an Earth Day celebration in your child’s class or school-wide to celebrate your efforts.

Thank you for all that you do! Please contact us if we can help support your efforts.

7 Steps to a Green School

These seven steps help you keep the journey to a Green School clear and simple.

Adapted from Eco-Schools International

1. Establish a Green Team or Eco-Committee

The Green Team is the heart of the Green Schools process, both organizing and directing activities at the school. Consisting of the stakeholders of the school environment – students, teachers, custodians, facilities managers, parents and school board members – the Green Team is democratic and can often be run by the students themselves. Whatever the type of school or age group, student involvement in the committee is essential. This group can be charged with coordinating many of the greening activities, making recommendations to relevant school decision-makers, and facilitating communication among — and actions by — the whole school community. Use our tips for starting your Green Team.

2. Adopt an Environmental Vision Statement or Planet Pledge

Each school produces its own vision statement, setting out what the students and/or school community are striving to achieve. The Environmental Vision Statement or Planet Pledge is displayed in various places within the school and is recognized by the students and other school community members as a statement of beliefs and intents. This statement is often in the words of students, and can be an inspiring classroom, art, or school-wide assembly project. Such statements can also be accompanied by a resolution from the school board, Parent Teacher Association, the Green Team, or other school bodies (see the sample school board resolution and sample policies on our Take Action page). Use our Four Pillars Graphic to help you understand and define the key components of a Green School.

3. Conduct a School Environmental Survey or Audit

To identify priorities for action, begin with conducting a review of your school’s environmental impact. Students are involved in this work at every step, from assessing the level of waste from school lunch, to checking the building for inefficiencies such as leaky taps, or electrical equipment left on overnight. The school and the Green Team can work with local organizations, businesses, or other resource people or experts during the review. Take the “How Green is Your School Quiz” and see how you rate. Find other examples of environmental surveys and audit tools on our Resources page, under Curricula. We’ve also got lots of ideas and resources on our Curriculum Ideas for Hands-On Audits page. These audits can be fun and really help educate the school community about the health and environmental impacts of the school.

4. Create a Green School Action Plan

Use the results of your environmental survey or audit to identify priorities of the key areas where you want to make change and create an action plan. It is important to set realistic and achievable targets to improve environmental performance at the school so kids and adults can take pride in tangible accomplishments in the short term. And it is important to set long-term, inspiring and challenging targets to move beyond the status quo and foster greater environmental improvements. The action plan could involve and promote, for example, a school recycling program; eco-friendly, non-toxic cleaning materials; carpooling; energy conservation like turning off lights, computer monitors and printers; or a school garden. See the “sample school board resolution” and “Steps Forward” on our Take Action page for examples of policy resolutions, and specific action items under a range of environmental and health topics. Download a sample worksheet (Word doc) to help create a one-year workplan.

5. Monitor and Evaluate Progress

The Green Team, students, or other school community members can assist with monitoring and evaluating progress on the priorities in the action plan. This could involve conducting an annual environmental audit to monitor levels of waste, recycling, energy use, purchases of environmentally-preferable products, and financial savings and/or costs. Use these ecological footprint tools combined with our resources on school audits. The information from the monitoring is needed to ensure that progress towards the goals and targets is made and that the action plan is modified, if necessary. It also ensures that environmental education is an on-going process in the school, since students can be responsible for the annual audits. The basic data collected over time can show the waste, pollution, and energy avoided – big motivators for people to continue the efforts.

6. Integrate Greening into the Curriculum

Greening activities can be integrated into existing curricula in science, art, humanities, math, language arts, or electives. Using the school as a hands-on laboratory offers opportunities for real-world problem-solving. Students can undertake study of themes such as energy, water, forests, toxic pollution, and waste. The whole school should be involved in practical initiatives – for example, saving water, recycling materials and saving energy. Outdoor education and time spent in nature locally – whether the schoolyard, a park, or a field trip – is a critical component of a hands-on, place-based, experiential education. Where environmental education is not part of the regular curriculum, recommendations can be made by the Green Team as to how these themes can be incorporated. See our Teach Stewardship and Resources pages for a Sustainable Curricula Directory, examples of environmental curricula, on-line quizzes, and other teaching and learning resources, including reviews of books and other media with environmental themes. No need to reinvent the wheel – there are loads of existing curricula you can use!

7. Inform, Involve, and Celebrate!

Honor, celebrating, and communicating about achievements are critical components of a Green School! Greening programs can often unify the whole school and strengthen community relations. Your school might consider partnering with external organizations from the community to benefit from their experience and expertise. In some schools, environmental consultants have offered to take part in the environmental review process. Many local government agencies and utilities offer free advice on energy, recycling, and hazardous waste management. Schools should also consider the wider community when preparing action plans – for example, schools could offer to be the local recycling point or to be a drop-off for Community Supported Agriculture boxes. Some schools get involved with clean-up or habitat restoration at nearby parks or share their experiences in other ways. A communication and publicity program keeps the school and the community informed of progress through classroom displays, school assemblies, newsletters, or other press coverage. Communicating is key to spreading success and inspiring more actions. Annual Earth Day celebrations – organized around April 20 – can offer an opportunity to showcase actions taken by the school and bring together the school and wider community.

Follow the 7 Steps to a Green School and you will be on your way to reducing your school’s environmental footprint and empowering students to make a difference.

Build a Team Positive change often begins with a great team, and that’s where we suggest you start. Your Green Team can be a uniting and visionary force, and can have a ripple effect throughout the community. You and your students can create an action plan, inspire others, and celebrate a healthier, more sustainable school in just a few months.

Make a Plan Activities should be grounded in the passions and interests of teachers and students so tasks don’t feel forced on people. The action plan could promote a zero waste reduce-and-recycle program; nontoxic cleaning materials; global warming reductions through energy conservation; or a school garden. It’s all about reducing your school’s environmental footprint and engaging students to take action at school, at home, and in their communities.

A Green Back-to-School

What can you do? Start with our Parent Toolkit. Buy recycled- and environmentally-friendly school supplies. Pack a waste-free lunch. Check out the health and safety of your school facilities. Ask about your school’s Wellness Policy and more…

Kids spend a big chunk of their days inside a school, so it’s critical that the school environment:

  • has good indoor air quality
  • does not expose kids to toxic chemicals
  • serves healthy food
  • Allows for recess and physical education, and generally promotes health and well-being.

Be part of the solution – take action this school year! Follow the ideas here and the steps in our Parent Toolkit to make sure your school is healthy, safe, and sustainable.

1. Check the Health and Sustainability of your School

One in five people in the U.S. – 55 million children, teachers, administrators, janitors, and nurses – spend their days in K-12 schools. A growing body of research shows that a poor environment at school is detrimental to children’s health and learning. Yet, the U.S. Environmental Protection agency estimates that the environmental conditions in as many as half of all schools is unhealthy.

Check the health, safety, and sustainability of your school using the following helpful checklists and tools:

2. Re-use, Recycle, & Buy Environmentally-Friendly Back-to-School Supplies

Your back-to-school purchases make a huge difference. Here’s why: 14 billion pencils are produced every year, many made with wood from ancient forests. Americans use about 31.5 million tons of printing and writing paper each year, requiring 535 million trees (most from virgin tree fiber) and 12 billion gallons of oil to make. The average American consumes about 660 pounds of paper per year, compared to 550 pounds in Japan and only about 8.8 pounds in India. Some estimates suggest that 400 million used whiteboard markers — that’s 25,000 tons — are thrown out in U.S. schools every year, ending up in landfills. A switch to non-toxic refillable aluminum whiteboard markers would save money and waste.

Re-use and Recycle:

  • Can you reuse binders, pencils, and markers from last year? You might not need to buy much new.
  • Buy refillable whiteboard markers and re-use them for years.
  • Shop for used binder notebooks at your local re-use agency. In the Bay Area check out East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse – 3-ring notebooks are about 25 cents.
  • Buy used clothing at numerous fashionable and funky stores and/or donate your own used clothing. In the Bay Area, check out: Hannah’s, Buffalo Exchange, Crossroads Trading Co., Goodwill, Salvation Army, Out of the Closet, and more. You can find info about most of these stores under East Bay Used Children’s Clothing. Or look on-line or in the Yellow Pages under “used children’s clothing.”

Buy Environmentally-Friendly Supplies:

  • Visit the Green Schools Buying Guide. It’s for everyone — whether you’re overhauling school policy or just need to purchase a few reams of paper.
  • Center for Health, Environment and Justice – Check out their 2011 Guide to PVC-Free Back-to-School Suppliesand their Back-to-School Checklist.
  • New American Dream – has an excellent Back-to-School Guide.
  • New Leaf Paper – You can find gorgeous New Leaf notebooks, spiral, binders, and paper at Office Depot, Office Max, Kroger, Amazon.com, Target and other retailers. New Leaf also offers a 100% Recycled Back to School Value Bundle (online) for $40 that includes notebooks, binders, recycled content paper, dividers and pens. You can save 10% offall other products by entering the promo code “RECYCLED” at checkout.
  • The Green Office – (online) Sells supplies with recycled content, fewer hazardous chemicals, PVC-free, and reusability (like refillable pens). New “PVC-free Catalog”: they removed nearly 2,000 products containing PVC or vinyl from their old catalog! Enter the coupon code TGOWELCOME at checkout, and receive 10% off your first purchase.
  • Office Depot, Office Max, Staples – (in-store or online) Look for recycled content paper and notebook products, green printing supplies; pencils made from certified sustainable-harvest wood; and EnviroTech products, which have a higher recycled content.
  • Green Earth Office Supplies – (online only) Sells notebooks, recycled paper, recycled binders (some are made of old circuit boards!), and many other great products such as reusable, biodegradable, non-PVC plastic containers for lunch boxes under the Food Service/Kitchen Supplies tab (containers must be hand-washed).

3. Pack a Waste-Free and Toxics-Free Lunch

Make a waste-free lunch and make a difference! It’s estimated that the average school-age child using a disposable lunch generates 67 pounds of waste per school year. That’s about 18,760 pounds of lunch waste for just one average-size elementary school! There are 9,000 schools in California alone. And did you know that many vinyl lunchboxes contain dangerous levels of poisonous lead? Find out how you can pack a healthy, waste-free lunch:

  • Waste Free Lunches – information about how to pack a waste-free lunch and where to get a “laptop lunch box” with reusable containers that neatly fit into a lunch box.
  • reuseit.com – provides alternatives to help reduce disposable plastic and paper bag waste. Watch their Waste-Free Lunch video on YouTube.
  • Klean Kanteen – the maker of the original, reusable and non-toxic stainless steel water bottles offers a 10% discount for school and team fundraising. Have your school logo put on if you like. Complete the form here.
  • Kids Konserve – offers waste free lunch containers.
  • Waste-Free Lunch Guidelines – Download this document with helpful waste-free lunch guidelines developed by 4th graders at Prospect Sierra School.
  • Lead in Lunchboxes – Learn about how to test your child’s lunchbox for lead, find alternatives to vinyl lunchboxes, and join the campaign to stop the manufacture of toxic lunchboxes.
  • Healthy Lunches – Get ideas for packing your own healthy lunches from Chef Ann at www.lunchlessons.org or transform the school lunch offered at your school with the Rethinking School Lunch guide from ecoliteracy.org.
  • Avoid PVC Plastic – Many Glad (TM) products are made with polypropylene and are PVC-free, including Glad bags, Gladware reusable containers, and Glad plastic wrap. Avoid #3 plastics.

4. Check that your School has a Wellness Policy

In the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, Congress required that all school districts with federally-funded school meals programs develop and implement wellness policies that address nutrition and physical activity by the start of the 2006-2007 school years. Ask your principal if your school district has adopted the required policy. Find out if the policy promotes nutrition and physical activity as described by National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity. Click here for model school wellness policies that promote children’s health and well-being.

I am hoping that with this and a little more research, (i.e. – what’s in it for the school? Can they get additional funding to run such a program?) my school might just be able to get it off the ground!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s