Fighting for a greener world
Our reporter tracks the progress of the Green Schools Programme on its 20th anniversary
Published 29/09/2016 | 02:30
Irish schools are leading the way towards energy-efficient education, as the Green Schools Programme celebrates 20 successful years.
Some 93pc of primary, secondary and special schools across the country participate in the programme, which is run by An Taisce and aims to foster an awareness of sustainable living in school children of all ages.
But despite two decades of successful operations, it’s far from a mission accomplished. Many of the children who went through the programme now bring the ideals with them into adulthood.
Cathy Baxter, manager of the Green Schools Programme nationwide, says the programme grew slowly but surely since its inception.
Now, it boasts the participation of over 3,700 schools, with over two thirds of schools awarded their Green Flag. Schools win the flag for excelling across a range of areas, including reducing litter and waste, making efforts to reduce energy and water consumption, develop ideas to encourage people to avoid the car and use public transport, cycling and walking as well as looking at biodiversity and global citizenship.
But in spite of a seven-step programme and numerous guidelines for schools being in place, Ms Baxter says most of the bright ideas come from students themselves.
“A lot of the ideas that the programme suggests are coming from the schools,” she told the Irish Independent. “They are the experts, and they are the ones on the ground.
“We try to arrange events where schools can meet and share their ideas. We also put up case studies on our website so schools can learn from each other.”
Since it first began, 930,000 students and teachers have participated in the programme. Their efforts have helped save around 450 million mugs of water, while diverting the equivalent weight of 2,618 polar bears worth of waste from landfill.
While almost every school across the State is now on board, Ms Baxter says the programme won’t slow down anytime soon.
“The programme is moving into a new phase now. It’s hard to find a school that isn’t participating,” she said. “We now have the smallest school in the country with a green flag, and the biggest one. We think all the schools can take on our programme and do well, no matter how big or small they are.”
She also said that many of the programme’s present staff were on Green School Committees in their youth. Asked if Irish schools could set the standard and become examples to follow in environmental affairs, Ms Baxter believes the programme’s pioneering efforts have already been recognised.
“I think we are leaders in terms of the Green Schools Programme,” she said. “It’s an international programme and over 60 countries are involved, but we are always highlighted as best practice. We have had delegates visiting us to find out how the programme is done here. We have been asked to visit schools all over the world.”
Recently, delegates from Ireland’s Green Schools Programme were invited to Japan to visit each local authority to offer advice on conserving resources.
But the Green Schools Poogramme isn’t operating in isolation. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) is launching this year’s One Good Idea competition in schools across the country, which encourages students to come up with creative ideas for energy awareness campaigns.
Entries can be made via www.seai.ie/onegoodidea, and the closing date is November 11 next.
But part of the success of the environmental activism in schools is that it doesn’t stop after the Leaving Cert is completed.
Ireland is also embracing greener third-level institutes with the bourgeoning Green Campus initiative.
The programme is the brainchild of a group of UCC students who wanted to bring the principles of Green Schools to third level. Maria Kirrane from Mayo was one such student, whose ideas went on to inspire several institutions in Ireland and abroad.
“I was in the Environmental Society in UCC, and a lot of us had come from Green Flag schools,” she said. “When we got to university we realised there wasn’t a whole lot of interest in the environmental management of the campus. It was being done at primary and secondary level, so we didn’t understand why it wasn’t being done at third level.”
Maria and her peers then joined forces with An Taisce and university authorities to promote green practices on campus.
“Recycling was the big issue at the start,” she recalled. “It’s when you’re walking down a thoroughfare in a university and you have a piece of rubbish in your hand, and you can’t find a bin to put it in, we felt that needed to be change.”
Maria’s efforts weren’t in vain. “UCC saved about €1m thanks to the initiative over its lifetime,” she said. The university went on to become the world’s first to earn a Green Flag.
Maria (31) is now working on a post-doctorate programme in UL on sustainability, which she hopes can be applied to more campuses. Now, 20 Irish universities, colleges and institutes of technology are registered with the Green Campus programme.
“In UL, they have really invested in a new cycle lane network around the campus. There’s a bike doctor on campus every week,” Maria said.
It’s a trend that Maria hopes can be replicated in campuses across Ireland and the world.
“Irish universities are really excelling in this area,” she added. “There has been a lot of students who have started their education through the Green Schools Programme and have brought those ideas with them.”
Dublin school doubles recycling as part of Green Flag bid
Students in Baltydaniel National School in Mallow, Co Cork are turning their attention to organic farming.
The school has 155 students and is now working towards its seventh Green Flag.
Having significantly reduced waste and energy use, schoolchildren now look after the vegetable garden on the school grounds, harvesting potatoes, onions, carrots, vegetable marrow and strawberries.
Teacher Kathleen Murphy, who looks after the Green Schools Programme, says the principles taught to pupils are now commonplace in the children’s lives.
“Many of the children would have grown up with these ideas, so it’s quite normal for them,” she said.
Meanwhile another school in Clondalkin in Dublin, Coláiste Bríde, has doubled its recycling, trebled its volunteer work and is now swapping eco-friendly ideas with students in India.
Green Schools coordinator Helena Kennedy says it is now on its sixth Green Flag.
“We have about 970 students, and at least a quarter of the girls are very passionate about being green,” she told the Irish Independent. “Many of them bring the ideas with them when they graduate and go to college.”
The students’ efforts are paying off, Ms Kennedy says, with the school making significant reductions in the amounts of waste it produces.
Since starting the Green Schools Programme, the school has doubled the amount it recycles, and the number of students who participate in community clean-ups more than twice a year has also doubled. The number of students who actively fundraise or do voluntary work has trebled.
Students and teachers are also now partnered with the Presentation Convent school in Dehli, India in order to exchange ideas.