In Sight, in Mind: A School Learns to How to Turn Waste into (Common) Wealth

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The roofless, circular chicken coop was an eye-sore in the manicured courtyard of the international school campus.  Curious students were approaching the coop and reacting with loud “yucks” and holding their noses at what they saw, and smelled, inside. And that was precisely the point. The international school in China hired us to help them identify opportunities to shrink their environmental footprint by saving energy and water and reducing waste. “Some schools have lovely statues and fountains,” said the school’s green-champion principal, “we have a gigantic, stinky waste basket.”

The oversized wastebasket was an idea students came up with in a task force “Green Team” we organized to collect data on school and generate ideas to make it green. Students argued that the community was unaware of the negative impact of all waste it produced because they couldn’t see it – or smell it – it was “out of sight, out of mind.”

So they proposed putting a visible symbol of their school’s profligacy, something nobody in the school could miss and a message nobody could ignore. Students spread the word for everyone to avoid using the normal bins and put all their waste into the chicken wire bin the size of kiddy pool with waist high walls. It was like a reverse archeology project – everyday it filled with the sedimentation of school life visible to all. “Do we really drink that much diet soda,” one student remarked, “doesn’t that stuff cause cancer?”

Each type of waste layered in the bin held up a mirror to the students and taught them a direct-sensory lesson about their health and environment in a way books and websites could not. Our back-of-the-napkin audit showed the bin should hold about two to three weeks of the school’s waste depending on how much participation there was, but the campaign was so successful it was overflowing after just one week. The environmental impact was there for all to see, and to find effective ways to reduce, recycle and reuse.

The student green team segregated the waste into different streams and looked for recycling alternatives for each. They made sure the city government was actually recycling the aluminum cans, glass bottles and paper they collected – a bold stance to take in China where information about city services is not readily available to the public. They even took on the issue of e-waste in the country, which is the dumping ground for the world’s hazardous electronic detritus. Shouldn’t China’s schools advocate for safer, more responsible ways to dispose of the things it makes and the world consumes?

They researched composting methods to transform biomass from landscaping, food and other waste into rich soil. “I discovered through our composting project that our school was farmland just twenty years ago,” commented one student in the school’s environmental club.

They also discovered that despite city’s rapid urbanization and sprawl that paved over much of the agricultural land, there were still many farms operating in the suburbs surrounding the school.  And that gave them an idea: why not donate the compost they were making in the school in exchange for the farmers produce?  Their ability see over the boundary wall of the school allowed them to turn a negative impact into a positive one and multiplied the social and economic benefits of connecting to community.

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