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Walking the Talk: 12 Action Areas for Schools to Combat Climate Change

The five years between 2015 and 2020 have been the warmest on record, and as of May 2020, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at the highest concentration in human history.

Students across the United States, from kindergarten through college, have learned about climate change. Yet schools themselves often are major culprits. In this guide, we’ll take a look at why this is and how lawmakers, school leaders, teachers, parents, and students can work together to create more environmentally friendly schools.

Why Should Schools Go Green?

For too many years, schools have been responsible for excessive energy consumption and waste. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that taxpayers spend $8 billion a year on energy for K-12 schools, which is the second-highest education-related expenditure after personnel. Not only will going green help the environment, but it’ll also help the schools save money over the long haul—which frees up funds for other worthwhile expenses.

Schools are also a place for students to see and create community change, whether they are advocating for this change themselves or observing how leaders in the school system juggle the challenges of limited resourcing, institutional process, and moral imperative.

Addressing Electricity Use as a Critical Factor

When we think of “going green,” we often think of things like reducing waste and litter, driving less frequently to lower fumes, and other visible issues. However, you’ll see electricity use mentioned frequently throughout this guide. This is because electricity usage is a major contributor to carbon emissions—that is, the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air—and that carbon can stay in our atmosphere for thousands of years. CO2 emissions are the largest contributor to greenhouse gases, which trap heat from the sun and make the Earth’s atmosphere hotter. This was once called the “greenhouse effect,” then “global warming,” and is now called “climate change.” These greenhouse gases’ effects on the environment are detrimental to the survival of all plant and animal species. So, when going green, it’s essential to consider the amount of electricity used by an educational institution.

How to Make Your School and District Greener: 12 Action Areas to Rally Around

Whether you’re a school board trustee, principal, teacher, parent/guardian, or student involved with any K-12 or postsecondary institution, you can make your school more environmentally-friendly. We’ve rounded up the following 12 ideas—seven at a relatively low cost, five at a higher price point—for making your school or district greener. Additionally, we recognize there are challenges to each and have suggested possible solutions.

Relatively Low-Cost Options for Schools Going Green

Because cost is a major issue for many schools and districts, these are some simple and relatively inexpensive options for lowering their carbon footprints and eliminating waste.

1. Involve Students and Parents

Getting buy-in and support from students and their families can be key to extending eco-friendly behaviors in school and beyond. Here are a few ways that schools can engage students and families in going green:

  • Build a school or community garden that can help students understand the importance of knowing where their food comes from, eliminate the transportation of certain produce items, and contribute food to the school’s nutrition programs. Plus, compost collections can be used to fertilize the crops.
  • Encourage the use of recyclable or compostable utensils and bags or reusable, insulated lunch containers.
  • Communicate your school’s green efforts regularly, through social media or in the school newsletter.
  • Invite feedback and suggestions from parents and students.

Involving Students and Parents

Challenge
These efforts may face resistance based on several factors, such as getting land or approval for a garden, not to mention financing these initiatives.

Solution
Establish a Green Team or eco-committee whose members can work with the school or community to identify ways to go green and organize activities on a volunteer basis. This could be a PTA initiative or a school club co-run by parents and staff.

2. Teach Students About the Environment and Climate Change

Research shows that when schools provide environmental education to students, they report a 90% skills increase and 83% better environment-related behaviors. Explore ways to integrate green activities into the existing curriculum, such as recycling drives or studies of home water usage that students can do at home. Establish a school-wide Earth Day celebration. Having students read environment-related books is another powerful method to introduce this subject.

Teaching Students About the Environment and Climate Change

Challenge
Schools are often underfunded and mandated to teach certain subjects with few resources. It may be challenging to include additional green education.

Solution
/strong>The Center for Green Schools is just one organization that provides resources for school leaders and teachers, including activities that align with Common Core standards.

3. Cut Back on Paper Usage

The simplest way to reduce paper usage is to reuse paper. Teachers should do so by using scrap paper for low-stakes notes like hall passes and avoid throwing away large pieces of construction paper after students cut it apart for art projects—many already-cut pieces can be used by students later. They could even have students complete new assignments on the backs of old ones or use one notebook for all assignments, which saves paper as students won’t have to borrow paper from teachers or buy new paper as frequently. Schools should also purchase recycled copy paper and bathroom supplies. Not only is recycled paper better for the environment, but it’s also often cheaper than new.

At a higher price point, technology can replace paper—even handwriting can be practiced on a tablet.

Cutting Back on Paper Usage

Challenge
Teachers and students may not like the “messy” look of reused paper, and it may be hard to read, especially if students write in pen. Changing paper suppliers can be arduous, especially if there’s a contract for several years. Technology comes with high up-front costs that many schools may not have the budget for. And relying on students to use their home devices isn’t feasible: 14% of children ages three to 18 don’t have access to the Internet at home, and 17% have no laptops or desktop computers.

Solutions
Teachers and students adjust to massive changes regularly; adapting to reusing paper is a minor request by comparison. Work with paper suppliers to see if you can switch to a new type—it’s not uncommon for paper companies to sell both new and recycled paper. Regarding technology, many schools, districts, and organizations around the United States are addressing technology gaps in schools and at home in the following ways:

4. Reduce Waste by Reusing Supplies

14 billion pencils are produced every year, and pencils, markers, crayons, and other school supplies fill up landfills at alarming rates. But there are some simple ways for supplies to be saved from this fate:

  • Staff and students can pick up pencils they find in classrooms or dropped in hallways and put them in a shared supply bin for students to borrow from.
  • Reuse binders, pencils, and markers that were left over after the previous school year. Students should be encouraged to keep and reuse their own supplies, but they could also put them in a communal area at the end of the year to be distributed to students and teachers the next year.
  • Purchase refillable whiteboard markers or mechanical pencils.
  • Use supplies until they actually are unusable. Don’t let broken crayons or colored pencils go to waste when they can still be used. In fact, broken colored pencils can often be turned into two pencils when both parts are sharpened.
  • If you must purchase new items, buy those made from recycled materials. Office supply stores usually sell paper, pencils, notebooks, binders, lunch boxes, and more that are made from recycled materials.

Reducing Waste by Reusing Supplies

Challenge
Tossing items out is easy, ingrained behavior.

Solution
If it’s just as easy to access recycling bins, shared pencil caddies, reusable paper for projects, and more, using them becomes second nature.

5. Recycle

Here are some ideas for encouraging recycling at school:

  • Keep a recycling bin visible in every room: The number one reason people cite for not recycling is its inconvenience—the bin isn’t accessible, or there’s no pickup from the current location.
  • Look for ways to recycle old markers or crayons: Crayola’s ColorCycle program converts old markers into energy and wax compounds for asphalt and roofing shingles. The Crayon Initiative uses donated crayons from restaurants, schools, and homes to make new crayons.
  • Recycle pens and pencils through programs such as TerraCycle: Have available boxes in which students and teachers can put these items, whether in individual classrooms or a central location. Old cardboard boxes are great for this, as you’ll be mailing the items to TerraCycle anyway.
  • Participate in RecycleMania: This is a national competition among college campuses to reduce and recycle the most waste in eight weeks.

Recycling

Challenge
With recycling comes the challenge of doing it properly. Many items that can’t be recycled mistakenly wind up in recycling bins. Knowing and communicating these restrictions can be challenging. Another difficulty may be that your school’s community doesn’t have recycling pickup.

Solution
Read up on your local recycling program’s restrictions. Earth911 maintains a searchable database of more than 100,000 listings for North American recycling programs. If pickup isn’t possible, see if staff or parents will volunteer to take things to recycling centers.

6. Donate or Sell Instead of Trashing Items

Part of instilling a reduce-reuse-recycle culture at school is developing a culture in which donating or selling items is the norm.

  • Campuses can set up donation bins for clothing items, classroom supplies, and more.
  • Try staging a campus- or department-wide garage sale as a fundraiser opportunity. This is a particularly great option for theatre and physical education (P.E.) departments who have gently used props, costumes, sports equipment, or other athletic gear that would otherwise be tossed during a clean-out. Student art projects could be auctioned off as well, either at a school event or online.
  • When new furniture or equipment is purchased, identify recipients—families, staff, or outside organizations—who could benefit from donations of the old items. If allowed, these could also be sold off.
  • Teachers can designate tables or bins where other students and teachers can leave or take discarded supplies.

Donating or Selling Instead of Trashing Items

Challenge
State and local ordinances may have strict laws about donations from schools due to budgetary or safety concerns. Setting up sales can be time-consuming.

Solution
Uncovering these laws and navigating them can be the job of a school Green Team or another volunteer group. A committee of teachers could be in charge of the sales and organize them, or individual teachers who want to participate in their own programs can be guaranteed their planning periods (rather than covering for absent teachers, which happens often) so they have time to set this up.

7. Make Walking and Biking to School Safe

Walking or riding your bike to school may be troublesome for those who live far away or must cross major thoroughfares. To address this issue, some schools have employed the “walking school bus,” which is a group of children walking to school with designated adults. Another option is to provide bike lessons and walking safety training in P.E. classes for students to learn how to bike or walk to school safely.

Making Walking and Biking to School Safe

Challenge
Finding adult volunteers for the walking school bus program and adjusting the P.E. curriculum could be challenging, as could finding enough bicycles for all the students.

Solution
Find parent volunteers for the walk. If you work in a K-12 school, older students may be entrusted with this as well. If your school has the budget, consider making this a paid position like lunch or school bus monitors. For the P.E. classes, collaborate with the teachers to make the adjustments, see if community members will donate old bicycles, and have students bring their own bikes when possible—and consider having parents sign off on them being shared with other students.

Potentially Higher-Cost Options for Schools Going Green

These “big ticket” ideas will reduce pollution and carbon emissions from schools on a significant level but have higher up-front costs. Thankfully, there are often grants to help cover costs, and companies are frequently willing to partner with schools to provide items at a lower cost—it’s good PR, after all! Additionally, many of these ideas will save money over the long haul—a 2016 study showed that delaying maintenance costs schools $271 billion, as emergency repairs add up quickly—which may make school boards more receptive to them.

8. Update Buildings and Grounds

Install Energy-Efficient Lighting

Better lighting has multiple benefits. Lowering electricity output lowers carbon footprints, of course. Additionally, lighting costs comprise 19% of a school district’s monthly energy bill, and it’s been shown that good lighting reduces absenteeism and can even improve overall student performance. Schools can take several steps to improve the energy efficiency of their lighting:

  • Replace fluorescent or incandescent light bulbs with LEDs or compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), which the U.S. Department of Energy says typically uses about 25-80% less energy and last up to 25 times longer.
  • Instill a habit of turning lights off when rooms aren’t occupied. Try designating a student to be an “energy monitor.” Teachers could also turn off overhead lights and use a desk lamp during their plan periods.
  • Install motion-sensor lights. For example, Oak Ridge High School in Tennessee added occupancy sensors that automatically switch off lights when rooms aren’t in use, and the sensors have light level options so teachers can reduce their power. Lights like these can also be installed in hallways, turning off when there isn’t heavy traffic. This means meaning lights can stop being on for up to 10 hours per day, going down to as few as three. (Just be sure the classroom lights are on reasonable timers, if that’s an option, so they don’t turn off during low-movement times like tests.)
  • Incorporate daylight into schools. In fact, studies show student performance is improved by 15-26% in sunlit classrooms. If your school has empty classrooms, be sure the ones with windows are filled first. Encourage teachers to keep blinds or curtains open during class time and, if your school is a safe area, allow them to hold class outside on nice days—and turn off their lights while they’re outdoors.

Replace Grass with Drought-Tolerant or Drought-Resistant Materials

Watering grass and plants on large campuses uses millions of gallons of water each year, so schools should seek opportunities to replace them with items that don’t require water or use much less. For example, Riverdale Country Day School in New York City installed a synthetic playing field made of cork and coconut fibers.

Replace Old HVAC Systems, or Curb Usage

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “HVAC systems are among the largest energy consumers in schools.” With many of our nation’s schools running on outdated HVAC systems—at least one school reports using a boiler from the 1930s to heat their building!—there’s a tremendous opportunity to reap financial, environmental, and student and staff health benefits by tweaking these systems.

  • Recommission your systems: This involves having an engineer observe a building’s systems to ensure they’re functioning properly. This can lead to reductions of 10-15% in annual energy bills.
  • Incorporate energy-recovery ventilation: This uses waste exhaust heat to warm incoming air.
  • Add demand-controlled ventilation: This system controls the amount of outside air coming into a space based on its occupancy.
  • Replace your air conditioner: Units that are older than 15 years use up to 20% more electricity than newer units, so it may only take a few years for a new system to pay for itself.
  • Consider using alternative energy sources: These include geothermal heat pumps or evaporative coolers, for example.
  • Use your existing systems more wisely: Keep thermostats in check, ensure that filters are replaced regularly, clean condenser coils, and have the systems serviced to make sure they’re running as efficiently as possible. Many people believe that turning HVAC systems off when not in use is more efficient. But, these systems are actually more efficient when maintaining temperatures rather than when being turned on and off. Plus, turning them off results in poor air quality within the building as it won’t be circulating, and it can even cause mold to grow.

Fix or Replace the Plumbing

Many school facilities have old, inefficient plumbing. Since 1994’s Energy Policy Act was passed, all plumbing products sold in the United States must meet a set of standards for water efficiency. However, outdated plumbing products still exist in schools, and corroded plumbing results in water waste and water contamination. Updated products can lower your school’s water bill thanks to fewer leaks—and avoid potential lawsuits if someone gets sick from the water.

Ensure Proper Insulation

One major way to improve a building’s efficiency is to improve its insulation. Use double-glazed windows, insulate water pipes, and ensure that plenty of insulation is used inside walls and roofs.

Updating Buildings and Grounds

Challenge
Up-front costs on these updates may be daunting and take a while to pay off.

Solution
Because of the higher energy efficiency and lifespans of such systems, the return on investment can be significant over time. Schools may also qualify for rebates for their investments in energy-efficient equipment. Additionally, grants are available for such efforts.

9. Switch to a Four-Day School Week

It’s believed that if businesses shortened their workweek to four days, we could see a 30% reduction in carbon emissions. Schools have toyed with four-day school weeks since the early 1970s when some K-12 institutions in New Mexico implemented the method to cut on energy costs. More recently, schools—particularly in rural areas—have begun adopting the idea to defray the costs of transportation. This also reduces the number of cars and school buses polluting the air. Several researchers have concluded that eliminating one working day per week can have a significant effect on lighting, air conditioning, and computer usage, not to mention the fuel used in transporting students to and from school. Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina, for example, moved to a four-day week and saved $30,000 from cutting utility costs like air conditioning or plumbing. As the use of utilities, even electric ones, increases a location’s carbon footprint, it follows that lower utility expenditures mean that they were used less and decreased carbon emissions.

Switching to a Four-Day School Week

Challenge
Savings may simply become costs for parents, who may have to pay for childcare on that day. Children who rely on food provided at schools now must be fed at home, which can be a hardship for lower-income families. Studies have shown that juvenile crime increases on the day eliminated from the school week.

Solution
Keep one or two school buildings in a district open during normal operation hours on the “day off.” In a manner like before- and after-school programs, students would be monitored, able to participate in activities, and receive homework help. In fact, this would be a great day for students to help with community gardens or sort recycling! Schools could also partner with food banks and use easily-transported cafeteria food that would otherwise be thrown out and send provisions home with students, like Harvesters Community Food Network in Missouri does with their “BackSnack” program.

10. Create Green Cafeterias

Serve Less Meat

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says plant-based diets are among the most important steps people can take to reduce climate change, because of the large amount of greenhouse gases emitted by livestock. K-12 schools and college dining halls could start by serving just one or two meatless meals per week, and college students living on their own should strive to consume less meat.

Address Food Waste

We’ve all seen kids in the cafeteria who eat their pizza or brownie but toss their banana and milk. This adds up quickly, which is why research shows that K-12 schools waste about 530,000 tons of food, excluding milk, each year. Colleges are also wasting food at a rate of approximately 22 million pounds per year, which is about 142 pounds per student.

There are several steps schools and families can take to reduce waste:

  • Create a shared food spot: Remember that wasted banana and milk? Instead of going into the trash, they could go on a table where other students or teachers could take them for their own consumption throughout the day.
  • Introduce composting: At Sheridan Elementary School in Nebraska, for example, students toss leftover lunch waste in a green composting bin, reducing food waste going to the landfill by 90%.
  • Create zero-waste classrooms: Teachers and students can start using cloth napkins and towels instead of paper towels, or designate bowls or tables where students can deposit their untouched lunch or snack items to share with their peers.
  • Donate food: Students may identify local charities that accept their unwanted or uneaten food, such as food banks or homeless shelters. Older students could even stage food drives to collect food, then package it and distribute it to the organization.
  • Conduct a food audit: School leaders can work with third-party organizations that help schools audit their food waste to determine the primary sources of waste.

Eliminate Disposable Cafeteria Materials

Many schools have gone to disposable trays and utensils to reduce water usage and the number of staff members needed to wash dishes. However, a School Nutrition Association (SNA) study found that washing reusable trays actually is more cost-effective than buying and throwing out their disposable counterparts.

Update Kitchen Appliances

Kitchen equipment in school buildings often is decades old. New equipment vastly improves energy efficiency, ultimately saving money and reducing carbon emissions. For example, the SNA study found that a newer model commercial dishwasher can reduce rinse water usage and energy consumption by about 50%.

Buy More Locally Sourced Foods

Locally sourced foods are healthier because they tend not to use preservatives, and they retain more nutrients because they’re allowed to ripen naturally. Purchasing local food also reduces carbon emissions by shortening the distance that the food travels.

Creating Green Cafeterias

Challenge
Schools may not want a shared food table because they don’t want food brought into classrooms or risk students taking food they’re allergic to. As with most school purchases, upgrading equipment can be costly. Matters of building gardens and growing or purchasing local food often comes down to state or federal regulations, which may prohibit such activities.

Solution
Instead of banning food and drinks in classrooms, institute a policy that everything must be disposed of correctly after being consumed—and enforce it. Don’t allow foods like nuts to be on the shared food table. Schools and districts may qualify for grants for equipment purchases or upgrades, and Energy Star appliance purchases qualify for tax rebates.

11. Switch to Solar Power

Your school is likely equipped with a broad, flat roof or large parking lot, both of which are ideal spaces for solar panels. School districts that use solar energy could save about $1 million or more in annual energy costs and reduce their carbon footprints by up to 28%.

Switching to Solar Power

Challenge
Solar panels can be costly to buy, install, and maintain. The return on investment comes slowly over many years, which often makes it hard to justify the initial expenditure.

Solution
Schools may qualify for several financing options. Plus, tax credits, rebates, and other incentives may take a nice bite out of those initial costs.

12. Make Transportation More Efficient

America’s fleet of school buses totals approximately 480,000, but only about one-third of students ride them. Meanwhile, they emit millions of tons of greenhouse gases and use excessive amounts of fossil fuels. However, they’re essential to ensuring students have access to school. Schools can explore these ideas for making their transportation systems more environmentally friendly:

Encourage the Use of Public Transportation

The Center for Cities + Schools at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that public transportation should be a part of the mix when it comes to getting students to and from schools. It suggests subsidizing access to public transportation by providing passes at a reduced rate to children over a certain age.

Adjust or Expand School Bus Routes

Safe Routes to School is an organization committed to ensuring school kids can walk or ride safely to school by designating safe routes.

With a little creativity, bus routes may be adjusted to result in greener use:

  • Adjust school the start times of the schools to enable more routes to be done with the same buses. This means that students from several schools could ride the bus together, with the same vehicles arriving at different locations at their allotted times rather than doing separate pickups—often around the same routes—for each school.
  • Students who live too near their schools to qualify for bus transportation but too far to walk safely are often driven to school by parents, increasing individual vehicle traffic and emissions. For instance, in Racine, Wisconsin, students must live two or miles away from school to qualify for free busing—a challenge for young walkers, who often can’t handle that distance, and an even bigger issue during their harsh winters. A potential solution could be to increase bus access to those living within a smaller radius for a fee, with exceptions given to those on free or reduced lunch programs.
  • Break outside the bussing box and explore alternative bus routes. For example, Denver Public Schools implemented Success Express, a program in which buses travel circular routes (one clockwise, one counterclockwise), stopping at schools and neighborhood stops, without heed to who lives where. Students can hop on and off all day, as long as they attend school in that district.
  • Develop a program that tracks when students walk, bike, carpool, or take public transportation to school and rewards them with points or gifts.

Purchase Electric School Buses

An increasing number of school districts are replacing their old buses with new electric models. One manufacturer of these buses says they average 134 miles on a full charge of their 220-kilowatt-hour batteries. They not only reduce emissions, but student performance has been shown to improve when they’re no longer breathing diesel fumes on traditional buses.

Making Transportation More Efficient

Challenge
Challenges include the cost of new buses, maintaining buses for longer routes, paying drivers for longer routes, and subsidizing transportation passes.

Solution
Grants are available, such as the EPA Diesel Emissions Reduction Act grant.

Resources for Schools Going Green

  • The National Wildlife Federation: This organization’s many conservation activities include providing young people with natural and outdoor programs to assist in developing environmental stewardship behaviors.
  • Green Schools Initiative: Founded in 2004 by parents looking to make their children’s schools more environmentally friendly, this organization works to provide education and resources to schools.
  • The Center for Green Schools: An arm of the U.S. Green Building Council, The Center for Green Schools works to develop sustainable classrooms and educate communities on how to build green schools.
  • Sierra Student Coalition: This youth division of the Sierra Club is a network of high school and college students who work to fight climate change through a variety of activities.
  • Guide to Financing EnergySmart Schools: This U.S. Department of Energy report provides information about the use of energy in schools and how to improve—both in terms of actionable steps to take and in overall cost. This is a great resource for districts fighting for funding—though the up-front costs of refurbishing schools to be more energy-efficient are significant, it shows that the savings over time are worth it.