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  • Datin Noor Azimah Abd Rahim

Practising sustainability in schools

In view of the recent environmental mishaps that have affected schools, it is high time we nurtured sustainable values in students and empowered them to be stewards of the environment.

What does sustainability mean to us and to the generations to come? It is, by definition, a system’s ability to endure. While some may associate the term with just the environment, it also involves social, economic and ecological elements.

Reducing the wastage of food, water or electricity, recycling our waste, sticking up for people who are not being treated fairly and respecting human rights are some of the things that help make our planet a more sustainable place to live. Being sustainable is also a generational responsibility. It is up to us to ensure that future generations can meet their own needs, just like we can meet ours today. We cannot leave them with an ever-increasing burden to bear.

These needs are fundamental, such as clear air and water, quality education, basic human rights, healthy food, a respectable home in which to grow and mature, a decent livelihood, a clean environment for all and more. These topics and more are covered in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious yet realistic target for any person or country that wants to adopt sustainable practices.

How can we instil sustainable values in our students? An obvious choice is to increase recycling rates in schools. It appears easy to do but in reality, it is not so simple. The inherent value of recycling is misunderstood, which is why tons of rubbish end up in open-air landfills daily. The rubbish then breaks down and releases methane (a greenhouse gas) to the atmosphere, and may even leach into our groundwater and rivers, poisoning them. Not all waste ends up in landfills though. They end up practically anywhere — some can even end up in the food we eat and the water we drink in the form of micro-plastic.

The best way to be environmentally and financially sustainable is to stop producing waste in the first place. Otherwise, at the very least, reduce it where possible. In nature, nothing goes to waste as one’s waste becomes food for other species. When shopping, encourage each other to bring along reusable bags, containers (like mangkuk tingkat) and bottles. A little effort can go a long way towards reducing waste and helping declutter homes.

At school, canteens could charge an extra RM1 each time a plastic bottle is purchased. Students could then reclaim the RM1 by simply returning the bottle to where they had bought it. The reason is to develop a sense of awareness and responsibility in the minds of students that their waste has value, that it should not be thrown away carelessly but deposited for recycling for a monetary benefit. Also, straws should be banned in schools.

In Norway, a landfill tax is imposed, which means 97% of its plastic bottles are recycled.

What else can students do? Pupil-led initiatives tend to work quite well in instilling sustainable values. How? Schools could encourage students to organise item-specific recycling programmes and enlist them to take part in waste audits. For starters, students could start with the biggest and most popular waste streams, for example paper, tins, plastic bottles and milk cartons.

Moving forward, schools could also help their students set up a special one-day recycling programme for more specialised waste streams, such as light bulbs, batteries or CDs. Furthermore, schools could work with students to carry out a school-wide waste audit to see how much waste is produced. From there, the waste can be classified by type and waste hot spots within the school could be identified. This would represent the first step a school could take to be zero waste.

Waste audits would also make it easier for students and teachers to recycle by placing recycling bins in the hot spots. Another thing worth doing is getting students to make clear signs and instruction posters to encourage everyone to use the recycling bins, and to use them correctly, thus becoming second nature to them.

Students are growing up in a very interesting time when sustainable technologies and practices are gaining momentum each day. Our students will not just have to be told about sustainable development but they can see it and work within it themselves — a living, learning place in which to explore what sustainability truly means. In retrospect, we all live on Earth and we all depend on Earth to live. We have so many different cultures but we only have one planet. If we take care of it and each other, and share what we produce fairly and in a sustainable manner, then everything we need is right here.

A special mention goes to the students and teachers of SJKT Sungai Ara, Bayan Lepas, Penang, led by principal Sangga Sinnayah, which bagged the regional Seameo-Japan 2018 Education for Sustainable Development award by composting its food waste, producing fertiliser, harvesting its organic farm, consuming healthy home-cooked meals and refraining from junk food.

Activities could be organised along these lines to reduce waste: encourage home-cooked meals by cutting down on food packaging, single-use and disposable items; incorporate canteen composting into science lessons or eco/gardening clubs; use pupil feedback to develop new menus, portion sizes, and favourite fruits and vegetables; look out for stores that accept recyclable material from local businesses and have them buy the school’s recyclables.

We could also encourage healthy eating in the school by recommending no crisps, sweets or fizzy drinks days; regularly announcing and celebrating waste successes in school assemblies, staff meetings and newsletters and on the school’s website; using notice boards and displays around the school to make waste minimisation central to its ethics; and ensuring students are familiar with what can be recycled, and that they are emptying them into the correct external bins.

All schools should emulate SJKT Sungai Ara.



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