GOING GREEN BEGINS IN THE CLASSROOM

As any educator knows, a classroom is a powerful resource. In a strong class setting, students learn how
to recognize, address and adopt the kinds of change that can positively affect their lives, communities
and the rest of the world. As a student’s mind grows, opening up to new ideas and tackling more
challenges; teachers, as the leaders of the classroom, can direct the energy of their classes towards
accomplishing any number of tasks, from solving complex math to performing Shakespeare to learning
the importance of embracing greener practices.

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Why Do We Need Greener Schools and Classrooms?

The power of the classroom can reach beyond its doors, to address the issues concerning society in general. One pressing topic of interest that involves all students (both on an individual level and larger social scale) is the environment. For example, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists climate change, also known as global warming, as one of the foremost environmental issues, with the potential to cost 12,000 lives annually as well as $5 trillion through the year 2100.

While climate change is a major issue—and one that has received substantial national attention since Al Gore and David Guggenheim’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth –it is but one problem in a world plagued with many environmental dangers. From deforestation to water loss and contamination to industrial pollution, environmental stewardship has never been more important.

Green classrooms and schools not only equip children with the knowledge on how to make a difference in the world, but also help create a healthier learning environment that benefits the students, teachers, and learning institution as a whole.

Eco-conscious classrooms and schools have been proven to cause the following:

Improved health of children. According to Green Schools Initiative, research shows that greener school environments can enhance the health and learning capacity of students, as well as counteract some of the unhealthy environmental factors and practices often employed by schools, such as:

  • The use of pesticides and other chemicals which contain dangerous neurological and reproductive toxins
  • Poor indoor air quality which has been linked to escalating asthma cases
  • Inadequate nutrition that contributes to childhood obesity rates

 

Higher test scores. Studies have shown that providing students with hands-on, practical environmental-related curricula, such as tending to a school garden, can lead to students scoring higher on tests for math, science and language arts. According to the Green Schools Initiative, when compared to control groups without similar programs, children exposed to environmental education also demonstrated improved behavior in class and better attitudes about school in general.

Increased student attendance: Not only does a green environment encourage students to look forward to a new school day, it also increases attendance amongst students who typically miss school due to health issues. For example, asthma is estimated to affect 5 million school-age children in the U.S., and is considered the number one cause of school absenteeism.

Greener schools also translate into fewer sick days for teachers.

Long-lasting, eco-conscious decision-making skills. A child is more likely to develop healthier habits and make eco-friendlier choices as an adult when exposed to the benefits and meaning behind leading a greener lifestyle at an early age.

Money saved. The Center for Green Schools proclaimed in 2015 that greener schools are “better for budgets” because of the impact that the total energy savings brings – $20 billion over the next 10 years if all new U.S. school construction and renovation adopted green initiatives.

Greg Kats wrote in Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits that green schools use 33% less energy and 32% less water than more conservative methods of school construction. The end result is a reduction in utility costs over the average 42-year lifecycle of a learning institution [1].

According to the Department of Energy’s EnergySmart Schools, the second highest operating expenditure for K-12 schools following personnel costs is energy, which racks up an annual bill of more than $8 billion. Greener schools and classrooms save money through a blend of green construction and the efforts of teachers and students that include the following:

  • waste-reduction strategies
  • student-run recycling committees
  • conservation programs
  • energy-efficient heating, lighting, air conditioning systems and occupancy sensors
  • daylighting strategies which increases the volume of sunlight in a classroom or building
  • water-efficient fixtures
  • lower maintenance and operations expenses

 

On average, the Center for Green Schools assesses the $100,000 in savings on operating costs that green schools reap per year is enough money to hire at least one new educator, purchase 200 brand new computers, or buy 5,000 textbooks [1].

In the classroom, small changes, such as unplugging computers and TVs when not in use, is another way to conserve energy, which can save a school over $1,000 a year.

Annual emissions reductions. School environments that have ‘gone green’ can also affect annual emissions, as the Center for Green Schools roughly estimates the following reductions attributed to a green school:

  • 1200 pounds of nitrogen oxides (major element of smog)
  • 1300 pounds of sulfur dioxide (a chief cause of acid rain)
  • 585,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (a primary greenhouse gas)
  • 150 pounds of course particulate matter (a leading cause of respiratory illness)

 

The above-mentioned reasons why greener classrooms and schools are important go beyond the benefits gained by staff and students, but also include the positive impact they have on the environment at large. The majority of schools in America uses exorbitant quantities of paper and energy; generates tons of waste and carbon emissions; and seldom buys environmentally-friendly products – all of which has an adverse effect on the planet.

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The Rise of Green Buildings

It may not be surprising that the number of nationwide “green” buildings is growing. According to the EPA, green building is “the practice of creating healthier and more resource-efficient models of construction, renovation, operation, maintenance and demolition.” The United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design ( LEED ) is an international standard of green building that employs a comprehensive, point-based certification system to review factors, such as water efficiency, indoor environmental quality and innovation to determine which buildings are the most environmentally sound.

There are four levels of certification deemed by the LEED, starting with being Certified, and then moving onto Silver-, Gold-, and Platinum status.

As of 2013, more than 3,000 schools were LEED certified in the U.S., with numerous schools pending certification. The bulk of LEED certified schools, often recently built, were designed to be green from the beginning, and have indicated that achieving LEED certification came at no additional cost to their project budget.

The Center for Ecoliteracy conducted a study of over 30 green schools and found that they cost less than 2% more than standard schools, but yield nearly 20 times the financial savings due to their design. The study also sourced data on the academic, cognitive and health benefits of many traits of green schools, including improved indoor air quality and proper exposure to sunlight.

Over 60 million Americans – almost 19% of the total population – go to school each day as students, staff and faculty, and most of are not entering a healthier, green environment. Therefore, work must still be done so that all schools benefit from going green.

This year, the U.S. Department of Education created a standard of three criteria by which to determine a school’s level of “greenness,” which includes the production of environmentally literate graduates, minimization of environmental footprint, and having a positive impact on student and staff health. This tri-fold definition, illustrated below, serves as a useful foundation for understanding the goals of a “green” school:

The first qualification revolves around what schools do best—education. Any school that hopes to go green must ensure that its students have an understanding of the world’s environmental needs and knowledge of the resources available to them. Teachers can employ hands-on instruction and student involvement to increase overall environmental literacy in their classrooms.

The second qualification, decreasing a school’s negative impact on the environment, is more complicated, and involves creative strategies due to the abundance of ways this problem can be solved. Everything from encouraging and organizing carpools to planting carbon dioxide munching flora to installing solar panels can decrease an environmental footprint.

Successful implementation of the first two qualifications leads inevitably to the third. A positive impact on the health of staff and students is the reward earned from the hard work of implementing green policies.

Schools that successfully fulfill the above-mentioned qualifications are also rewarded in other ways, such as qualifying to compete in the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools recognition program, which honors schools that excel in energy conservation and environmental education.

Green Ribbon Schools are chosen for their excellent achievements in:

  • Reducing environmental impact and costs
  • Improving health and wellness of schools, students, and staff
  • Providing effective environmental and sustainability literacy
  • Incorporating green career pathways, as well as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education (STEM) into the classroom

 

Recognition of greener schools and classrooms not only set an example for neighboring institutions, but also encourages districts, schools, and teachers to follow suit.

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15 Green Strategies for Today's Classrooms

For schools that were not designed with environmental awareness, it can seem daunting to convert the minds of the students, faculty and staff, as well as make changes to the building itself, towards becoming more environmentally friendly. However, when educators, schools and students show an interest in going green, there are many methods to embrace, such as the following environmentally sound practices for greenifying the classroom and/or school:

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Harness the Power of Solar Energy

Historical energy sources – fossil fuels such as coal and oil – are limited. They also contribute to global warming when their waste products are burned . Thankfully , the sun provides clean, infinite energy that technology now allows us to harness. In an ideal world, installing solar panels at a school is hugely beneficial . Though it does require initial funds , improvements in technology have driven down the cost of solar is installation , and there are a variety of options — state , federal and private energy grants as well as simple Do-It-Yourself solar system —that make it more affordable. In the long run, solar energy has proven to be cost effective, with many school districts reporting considerable, consistent savings due to their solar program.

While outfitting a school with efficient solar panels seems like a costly endeavor, there is a range of easy, quick ways to utilize solar energy in the classroom to improve the environment, such as:

Letting in more sunlight. In green construction circles, a practice called ‘daylighting’ is used, which installs properly designed windows and skylights to increase natural light. One of the simplest ways to use solar energy is by allowing sunlight into the classroom. Not only is it a free way to keep the class warm and lit, but studies have also shown that greater sunlight in the classroom improves student performance and health. Teachers can:

  • Open the blinds
  • Pull back curtains
  • Refrain from hanging student artwork on windows to increase a classroom’s natural light

 

Turn off lights to save energy. With increased natural sunlight in a room, many classrooms do not require overhead lighting to see during lessons.

Incorporating solar energy into lesson plans. Sites, such as the State Energy Conservation Office of Texas and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, serve as resources for solar energy teaching material. While passing this information onto students may not directly diminish a school or classroom’s carbon footprint, it helps create students who will be more conscious of their energy usage both at home and in the future.

Some lesson plans centered on learning about solar and other energy sources have led to making lasting impressions, as seen in the fourth-grade class in Durham, North Carolina which raised money to fund a school project that ultimately lead to creating their own solar-powered classroom.

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Improve Indoor Air Quality

The quality of indoor air inside schools is not only important for the comfort of students and staff, but also for their health. According to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), poor indoor air quality has been associated with causing symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, trouble concentrating, and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.

And as mentioned earlier, poor air quality has also been linked to asthma and other respiratory conditions, which leads to one of the leading causes of absenteeism in schoolchildren. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that students miss approximately 14 million school days per year due to complications of asthma. According to the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, schools successful in controlling a student’s exposure to indoor environmental factors, such as dust, pollen and carbon monoxide, could prevent more than 65 percent of asthma cases among elementary school children [2].

Due to the need for public funds and the age of both schools and their students, managing air quality in schools can be difficult. While many solutions to this problem lie in expensive air filters and complete school renovations of ventilation systems, teachers are still able to utilize simple fixes.

Studies from The National Center for Biotechnical Information have suggested that indoor plants can improve indoor air quality for students. Common houseplants, such as peace lilies, snake plants, aloe vera, bamboo palms, and spider plants, not only naturally purify the air but also improve responsibility in students. The National Education Association notes that snake plants and spider plants are non-toxic, yet the sap in peace lily plants is toxic and should not be kept around young children.

Additional research has shown improved air quality associated with plants can lead to a wide range of academic improvements, including higher math, reading and spelling scores.

Additional ways to improve the air quality of a classroom:

  • Remind students and staff to keep books, papers and other items off of HVAC units. Address unusual odor issues in a classroom; instead of masking with air fresheners, the facilities management team of the school should investigate to make sure it’s not mold.
  • Inquire the frequency in which air filters are changed, and request regular maintenance.
  • De-clutter room corners, piles of papers, and old decorations to eliminate an accumulation of dust in the classroom.
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Encourage Classroom Recycling Efforts

Recycling is one of the most popular approaches towards embracing a greener classroom and/or school. Classroom recycling can be as passive as having a separate recycling bin in the classroom, or as active as visiting a recycling center and learning more about the process to implement schoolwide changes.

No matter how small the action, recycling is an essential part of maintaining the environment and any teacher must first start by explaining its importance to students. Without a fundamental grasp of the purpose and necessity of recycling, much of the benefit of passing on the practice is lost.

A few key components for creating a successful, sustainable classroom recycling program are:

Research: Teachers should explore examples of successful school recycling programs and case studies to gain inspiration and help shape their own. It’s important to learn how to create a program that educates, benefits, and adequately engages the grade level(s) at hand. Contacting and taking a trip to a local recycling center helps gain an understanding of the specifics for state recycling requirements and restrictions. Students can also see the process of recycling, which helps make a strong connection between their efforts and beneficial earth-friendly outcomes.

Get Administration on Board: Obtaining the support of school administration, as well as the maintenance staff and custodial workers of a school, can increase the chances of implementing a successful recycling program.

Conduct a Waste Audit: To create an efficient recycling program, RecycleWorks suggests having a waste audit to determine waste composition and volume of materials, as well as identify what portion of waste can be recycled, reused, reduced or eliminated. Audits also pinpoint the recyclable materials that could be substituted for non-recyclable materials already in use.

Establish a Cohesive System: Before embarking on a school recycling project, students must fully understand the process of recycling, and the impact their actions will have on the environment. After deciding whether their efforts will be confined to their classroom, or involve a schoolwide effort, a teacher must set guidelines, procedures and goals, such as:

  • The type of materials to be recycled (and in which capacity), such as can-only drives, targeted reduction of lunchroom waste, or color-coded recycling bins placed throughout the school. Diane MacEachern, who wrote Inspiring Kids to Go Green at School, mentioned how some teens and middle-schoolers have concentrated their efforts on recycling electronics and cell phones.
  • Choosing appropriate container options (such as opting for collection bins with restricted openings large enough for paper goods, but too small for garbage).
  • Determining the placement of recycling bins on school property.
  •  Ensuring that each ‘team’ member has a role, when applicable, such as designating individual(s) who are responsible for facilitating the actual recycling of collected items.

Create an Engaging Lesson: Not all students will find recycling particularly interesting, at first. As is often the case in school, the activity will most likely need to be enhanced in order to appeal to students. Start by encouraging students to bring in recyclables, and keep track of totals. Hold competitions, both within the class and between classes. Use lessons on recycling to reinforce and expand upon the recycling in the classroom, or vice versa.

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Take an 'Earth Day is Every Day' Approach

Earth Day is an annual worldwide event celebrated on April 22, which concentrates on recognizing and showing support for environmental issues and protection. The day provides an excellent entryway for teachers to educate students about the importance of environmental responsibility.

However, when taking the approach that Earth Day is an “every day” event, the impact is long-lasting and takes place on a greater scale. Teachers can encourage their students to participate in events outside of Earth Day by developing their understanding and care for environmental issues both inside and outside of the classroom.  Examples of options available for K-12 grade levels include:

  • Green Apple Day of Service: Students, classrooms and schools can participate in the Green Apple Day of Service, which encourages communities to get involved with sustainability projects, ranging from school playground clean up to planting trees in the neighborhood. On-going efforts occur on a city- and statewide basis.
  • DoSomething.org: Supporting young people with an interest in social change, many campaigns on DoSomething.org center on eco-friendly initiatives, such as Don’t Be a Sucker (locating and unplugging “energy vampires” at school); ABC Cleanup (hosting a costumed cleanup); 50 Cans (collecting and recycling at least 50 aluminum cans); and Petition Plates (protesting Styrofoam by using cafeteria plates to make petitions). High school teachers may promote or challenge their classrooms to craft their own campaign or participate in the ones on the site that have been already created by teens, for teens.
  • Green Teams: MacEachern spoke of a student-driven ‘Green Team’ at a local elementary school in her community that were particularly active in gathering the support of their peers, parents and other teachers. She said that when they wanted to use reusables instead of the cafeteria’s throwaway lunch trays, the students held rallies, marched in protest at an annual holiday parade, testified at school board meetings, as well as earned the support of the PTA.
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Start a School Garden

School gardens provide an enjoyable and unique way to get students physically engaged in their lessons and to teach them an environmentally beneficial skill set. The gardens can serve a wide range of purposes (depending on the organizer’s desires), from producing healthy, fresh food for donating to a local pantry, to serving as an inspiring botany unit lesson.

Regardless of the type of garden intended, there are a few steps a teacher can take to maximize a school garden’s opportunity for success:

Choose a Site: The location of a garden is the first, and possibly the most important decision that can determine a garden’s chances at success. There are a number of factors that are important to consider, including the actual properties of the location, such as soil quality.

Let’s Move, the federal initiative for improving childhood health, suggests the site for a school garden should be:

  • Easily accessible for both students and teachers
  • Positioned near a dependable water source
  • Far from potential threats, such as vandals and rodents
  • A large enough space that permits future growth
  • Located where exposure to sunlight is possible at least 6 hours a day
  • Situated in soil not contaminated with lead or other heavy metals (achieved by having soil tested for pH, nutrients, and lead contamination by a laboratory)

When space is limited, teachers may opt to garden in containers, or Let’s Move suggests considering options within the community, such as a nature center, vacant lot, city parks, or community garden [3].

Choose Appropriate Plants: Any plants can go into any garden, but not all are considered ideal. Which plants to add to the garden can be decided by a single person, or by following a democratic process. However, it is important to do research on which plants are safe, easy to maintain, and overall desirable for the climate – native plants usually thrive the best.

Fair Division of Labor: School gardens can become a large responsibility, and the best way to prevent any parties involved from being overwhelmed is to divide up the duties. Whether a single class, an entire grade or the school as a whole is participating, teachers must distribute caretaking responsibilities – regardless if one person serves as the primary garden supervisor.

Local community members, such as local flower shop owners, farmers and botanists, can bring insight into the garden project, as well as increase enthusiasm and support for the garden.

A school garden is more than just seeds and soil; it becomes a part of the community. And most importantly, such a project teaches students valuable lessons related to the environment and leading a more sustainable life.

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Start a Classroom or Schoolwide Composting Project

Gardening and composting tend to go hand-in-hand, especially in conjunction with school garden projects, and according to Keith Addison, “gardening without composting only teaches half the lesson.”

Composting is the process of transforming organic matter, which decomposes to create an organic, nutrient-rich fertilizer or additive to soils. Involving a simple yet detailed and potentially lengthy process, younger students learn many valuable lessons centered on science and the environment. Older students are able to conduct research that involves concepts of biology, chemistry, and physics.  In the end, students participate in a process that incorporates the importance of reducing, reusing, and recycling the solid waste they produce.

Teachers facilitating a composting project must oversee the following:

Space and Containment: Composting relies not just on the materials, but also requires a space that allows decomposing bacteria to thrive. Offering varying advantages and drawbacks, there are many types of commercial, professional, and do-it-yourself composting bins and containment solutions to consider, such as [4]:

  • Garbage can bioreactors – students can build a two-can bioreactor using a 20-gallon and 32-gallon plastic garbage can, as suggested by Cornell University.
  •  Worm bins – uses red worms to facilitate the composting process
  • Soda bottle bioreactors – a small and inexpensive approach that allows students to construct their own individualized systems
  •  Plastic bags – an effective, cheap container for students
  •  Wooden box bin – this inexpensively built bin using wooden pellets, which can create a box that measures 3 x 3 x 3 feet • Garden box – construction of a basic wooden frame can serve as a designated outdoor space for a composting heap or pile
  •  Wire mesh bin – inexpensive and easy to build, this bin is made out of chicken wire (choose galvanized wire to last longer)
  • Wood and wire three-bin turning unit – although sturdy, attractive and long-lasting, this project is relatively expensive and time-consuming to build

Gather the Ingredients: The materials needed for composting are a mixture of carbon-based, brown ingredients and nitrogen-rich green ingredients. Brown materials consist of straw, wood chips, shredded newspaper, and dry leaves. Green material includes wet, fresh elements, such as food scraps, grass, and manure.

Maintenance: Once the materials are gathered and added to the container, compost doesn’t happen on its own. The conditions that promote bacteria activity—heat, moisture, air—must come into play. The progress of the compost also requires regular observation.

  • Students can be assigned essential tasks, such as:
  • Adding water and keeping the compost moist
  • Making sure portable containers are in a warm area, or covering immovable composting units with black plastic to attract heat
  • Rotating and flipping the bin or compost contents occasionally to ensure proper aeration

Depending on the bin and conditions, a composting project can take anywhere from two weeks up to two years to reach its desired outcome. The Cornell Waste Management Institute says finished compost no longer heats up, even after it has been mixed. The initial ingredients are no longer recognizable, and the remnants of the compost bin or pile are described as an earthy-smelling substance similar to a rich, organic soil [5].

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Advocate for Healthier School Lunches

With childhood obesity at an alarming high, there is a solution that both the environment and parents can support – organic lunches – which provide healthy meals to students by eliminating high-starch, over-processed foods (which also place stress on the environment) from the daytime diet of pupils.

Changing the lunch menu may be beyond the purview of any individual teacher or principal, but requesting changes from the school district is a definite possibility. In fact, it has already worked in many areas of the country. Districts in Seattle, Palo Alto and Santa Monica, among others, have already introduced organic components into their school lunches. Nationwide programs, such as Alice Water’s The Edible Schoolyard Project, also work with schools to integrate kitchen and garden experience into the curriculum, giving students the knowledge and tools to provide organic food for their entire school.

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Opt for Natural Cleaning Methods in the Classroom

Replacing toxic cleaning supplies with eco-friendly ones is a small change made in a classroom that not only benefits the environment, but also improves air quality. Using green cleaning products and DIY natural disinfectants help eliminate chemicals from the air.

A few suggestions include:

Using a mixture of one-part vinegar and one-part water to create an all-purpose cleaner.

Combining four tablespoons of baking soda to one quart of warm water to make a solution that addresses tougher stains, such as wax, mildew, grease and dirt.

Adding fresh lemon juice to create scented natural cleaners.

Using reusable cloth rags or recycled paper towels to help reduce waste.

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Select Environmentally Safe Products

Organic products can be broken down when placed in the right conditions, which for the most part, discounts plastic items which generally lack the environment-saving ability to decompose properly. However, there are a few specific biodegradable plastics that break down just like organic matter, and do not contribute to landfill waste or cause harm to the environment. When applicable, opt to use eco-conscious products and supplies in the classroom, from biodegradable disposables (such as napkins, utensils and plates for school parties) to certified compostable items, like trash bags made from potato starch originating from non-GMO starch potatoes.

The National Education Association (NEA) suggests buying green school supplies from online retailers, such as:

  • Dolphin Blue – certified green general store that sells calendars, planners, office supplies, ink/toner, and stationary paper.
  • The Real Earth, Inc. – sells recycled office supplies, such as file folders, binders, pads, envelopes and desk accessories; as well as green cleaning supplies.
  • Greenline Paper – home of compostable Bio-Bags (made from plants, not plastic), plant-based compostable plates and utensils, and green office supplies.
  • New Leaf Paper – sells 100% Post-Consumer Recycled Fiber premium papers and envelopes.
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Promote Green School Supplies to Students and Parents

When sending the beginning-of-the-school year list of required and recommended supplies for class, teachers can also include eco-friendly suggestions, such as:

  • Recycled plastic pens
  • Pencils crafted from recycled newspapers
  • Crayons made out of non-toxic soy and beeswax • Binders, folders, notebooks and loose leaf paper made from recycled cardboard or “post-consumer waste.”
  • Reusable stainless steel or BPA-free plastic water bottles
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Go Digital to Save Paper

In an increasingly digital world, it may seem easy to avoid using paper, but the fact is that the United States still consumes almost three times as many metric tons of paper as the second largest consumer, China; and 28% of that comes from printing and writing paper. All of this paper waste leads to deforestation, which utilizes carbon dioxide-producing machinery to eliminate millions of acres of carbon dioxide-consuming trees a year – all of which further contributes to global climate change.

Teachers can promote paperless lessons in their classrooms, and use technology such as the Internet, tablets, and SMART Boards to improve environmental friendliness in their classroom.

Other earth-friendly approaches include:

  • Create Power Point presentations to cut down on distributing paper handouts.
  • Have students share books during lessons instead of using photocopies.
  • Forego paper methods of sending important information (such as progress reports, notes, and school announcements) home to parents, and opt for email notifications.
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Teach the Value of Water Conservation

The EPA reports that over 97% of the Earth’s water supply is ocean salt water, unusable to humans; another 2% is also unusable, captured in the ice caps and glaciers. This means that only 1% of the world’s water supply is accessible, and with the world’s ever-increasing population, water conservation has become a crucial part of environmental literacy, especially in the drought-prone areas of the western United States.

Principals and district officials can monitor school water usage, oversee water pipe maintenance, and institute policies that encourage conservation. Teachers can also play a significant role in instilling the importance of water conservation to their students.

Educators have several avenues to consider when promoting responsible water-related behaviors that reach beyond the classroom. For starters, incorporating the education of water conservation and the consequences of overuse into the curriculum can be an extremely effective method, and there are plenty of water education materials available to teachers.

Additional water-saving measures teachers can push include:

  •  The posting of water conservation signs posted as reminders – students can help in their creation and placement.
  • Students can be instructed to report any water leaks.
  • If the school has a garden, teachers can make sure to select plants requiring the least amount of water.
  • Primary school teachers can encourage water-saving water habits in their students, such as refraining from pouring toxic liquids into sinks or toilets.
  • Establish a Rain Barrel Project to teach students about the issues related to stormwater runoff, and how rainwater has an effect on their school, neighborhood and local streams.
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Organize a School Carpool Program

Anisa Baldwin Metzger, Center for Green Schools Fellows Manager, mentioned in Celebrate Earth Day with 11 Ways to Green Your School that school carpooling programs can have a large effect. Metzger said that the more children or teachers arriving to school in the same car leads to:

  • less fossil fuel used per person
  • less pollution emitted per person

Teachers may start small by asking the parents of one or two classes to see if they’d like to reduce the number of times they drive back and forth to school. Another route is to organize an effort that encourages families and children to walk or bike to school in groups.

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Act as Advisor for a Green Club

Teachers who volunteer to assist, oversee, or encourage students with an interest in starting a ‘green club’ at school can have a profound effect on changing student’s attitudes towards important planetary issues. Members of eco-friendly organizations actively promote environmental causes and solutions, such as planting school gardens, enforcing school recycling programs amongst their peers, and advocating for sustainable changes within the classroom.

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Utilize a Variety of Resources

The teacher who stays well-informed on the latest green trends and environmental concerns is better able to guide his or her students towards protecting the planet. The following eco-groups and resources provide up-to-date information and green ideas for K–12 schools:

  • Climate Change Education
  • Center for Green Schools
  • Healthy Schools Campaign Greenhearted.org
  • Green Schools Initiative
  •  TreeHugger

For many, education is considered the bedrock of society. As schools better themselves, they also better society as a whole. While many of the above-mentioned green strategies require knowledge, time, coordination (and oftentimes money) to achieve, the long-term benefits of going green in the classroom are indisputable.

The number of green schools is increasing across the country, so much so that The National Building Museum now has an exhibit dedicated to these trailblazing academies.

A single idea, strategy or effort may not solve a school’s sustainability concerns. However, when multiple strategies are embraced, teachers can play a role in greatly transforming a school’s culture and attitudes towards the environment. By preparing more students to recognize the importance of leading a greener life; small changes have the potential to make a large impact on moving the world in a more environmentally sound direction.

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Know Your Products

Despite the growing number of environmentally friendly products on the market, greenwashing is also on the rise. In short, greenwashing refers to the practice of using advertising or packaging to create the illusion that a product is green. This can occur on many levels. A bright green label, for example, may give the impression that the product is a green product, since we are now accustomed to thinking about green packaging in this way. Likewise, placing “all natural” or “100% natural” on a package may suggest that the product is organic and only contains materials produced under environmentally friendly conditions. In fact, “all natural” or “100% natural” means little more than a bright green label. The FDA does not define “natural.” The only regulations regarding the use of the term “natural” on food packaging is that the product in question contain “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source)” and nothing that “would not normally be expected to be in that food.” Natural does not, however, mean pesticide free or tell one anything about how the product was processed (e.g., whether or not thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation were used).

To ensure you are purchasing green products, it is important to look for one of the following seals, which are used to designate different types of green consumer products.

Energy Star: The energy star label is used to designate appliances and electronics that have been designed to save energy. Buying a product with this label means that you are buying a product that has been certified to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants caused by the inefficient use of energy.”

USDA Organic Seal: The USDA Organic Seal is one of the most common and important labels to recognize. Everything from produce to granola bars to ice cream now carries this seal. If one sees the seal, it means that the product is certified organic. While some organic products do not carry the seal (e.g., at a local farmer’s market, one may find produce that is organic but does not carry the seal because certifying can be onerous and costly), one knows that if the produce does carry the seal, it is organic. Bear in mind that food producers who use the USDA Organic Seal on food that is not organic can be fined up to $11,000 for misleading the public.

Green Seal: The Green Seal is a third-party certification method used on a range of products (e.g., cleaning products, light bulbs, paper, and other household goods). Depending on the product, different standards apply to earn a Green Seal (for full details, visit their website). While useful insofar as the Green Seal applies a broad range of standards to its environmental mission.

Forest Stewardship Council Logo: The Forest Stewardship Council Logo is used on paper and wood products. It designates wood products that have been made using in accordance with the FSC’s principles guiding sustainable forest management (for more details, visit their website). A key part of the FSC mandate is that sustainable forestry must not only respect the environment but also the people who live in and manage forests (e.g., the local indigenous people).

  • [1] Green schools are better for budgets; The Center for Green Schools; U.S. Green Building Council; June 30, 2015
  • [2] Benefits of Green Schools; Green Education Foundation; reproduced from the Center for Green Schools
  • [3] School Garden Checklist; Let’s Move
  • [4] Designs for Composting Systems; Cornell Waste Management Institute; Cornell University
  • [5] Cornell Composting: Composting in School; Cornell Waste Management Institute – Department of Crop and Soil
    Sciences; Cornell University
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