We don’t need no education: students trail-blaze green initiatives

Thursday, January 12th, 2012
Green student activists at the Canadian International School

I recently attended a meeting in a large, airy building with wooden beamed ceilings and a huge Christmas tree in the corner to talk with committee members of a new environmental initiative charged with promoting green living  throughout the organization.

With such campaigns as Meatless Mondays, Lights Out Fridays, and a complete ban on the use of plastic bottles, one would think you were talking to a large corporation making its first moves into the sustainability world. On the contrary, this was a group of young people aged six to 18 who form the nucleus of the green drive at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong (CDNIS).

The innovative, bold initiatives these young people have undertaken are not only impressive in their results, but send a clear message to their elders, and indeed the corporate world, that the upcoming generation is very concerned with the condition of the planet it stands to inherent, and is intent on doing something about it, even if they have to go it alone.

Indeed, at the closing of the COP 17 talks in Durban wrapped up, and the “platform” for a plan reached, it was the young people who were applauded for their action at the event. Richard Black, environment correspondent for the BBC, said this about the youth participants at the conference: “Unfailingly charming, youth delegates brought a freshness, a 'Yes-we-can-ness', to the often jaundiced proceedings.”[1]

This was exactly the feeling I got when hearing the energetic young organizers at CDNIS describe their actions. They were not only passionate but, dedicated, informed and ready to mobilize and knew their stuff.

Actually the meeting was a follow-up to one I had a year ago to get an idea on what progress had been made in their school campaign. I was impressed. It hasn’t been easy and not everyone welcomed the changes, but over the year the school has managed to reduce energy consumption by up to 14 percent in one month, and substantially reduced trash. Before the ban on plastic bottles the committee collected and recycled over 2,000 plastic bottles in one month alone from trash cans.

The next phase, to ban the serving of meat or fish for lunch on Mondays, is being promoted through posters and interactive fun sessions and dialogue with younger students.

What is most impressive is that all of the actions are planned and, after getting approval by school administrators, executed by the students themselves.

Getting support from the caterers was simple enough as they had done it before and were very supportive. However, the difference between CDNIS and other schools is that it’s one of the first to completely ban meat from being served at the cafeteria, not just serve less of it.

Turning off non-essential lights from 10.55am to  1.15pm, and banning or reducing air-conditioning through the winter months have also been introduced by the School Environmental Education Committee (SEED) and Environmental Club.

As we all know, coming up with the ideas is the easy part. Execution is an entirely different story, but one that can bring great experience that these young peoplecan eventually take to the business world, including: devising  strategies for implementation, dealing with contractors and suppliers and fielding criticisms from stakeholders (in this case fellow students, parents and teachers).

SEED is representative of the entire school community.  It consists of Lower School and Upper School students, teachers, parents and administration, meeting once per month, allowing for input from various points of view. It has empowered the student representatives by allowing them to exercise control over the environment they spend most of their day in, which will hopefully lead to them continuing this after they leave school.

And action doesn’t stop at the school gate. CDNIS is also working with its local community to develop a green network.  In sharing ideas with a local boat club, the school has arranged for teachers to deposit their empty bottles for recycling as raw materials for bricks, preventing them from ending up in landfills.

They are also in the process of establishing a Hong Kong Eco Schools network, to engage with as many schools in HK as possible, uniting the voice of like-minded students and furthering the youth green movement in HK. This kind of commitment to being green should be mirrored in other schools, in HK, and across the globe.

A number of the students I interviewed are keen to pursue careers in the environment or business, some with plans to combine the two pursuits. Applauding their mantra “money doesn’t buy you happiness”, I wish them all the best and recommend big businesses and decision makers take note.

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