How Education Could Become More Sustainable

published Mar 08, 2019
2 min read

Sustainable School

Sustainability has changed from an industry buzzword to a social necessity, but schools aren’t usually looked at when as buildings that need to become more sustainable. There are a lot of opportunities to improve sustainability in school buildings — there are more than 98,000 public schools scattered across the country. How can education become more sustainable?

Relying on Green Materials

Green building materials are becoming more popular and more accessible to obtain, but when schools come up for remodelling, most contractors choose traditional materials over the green alternatives. Multi-pane or energy efficient windows can make it easier to save energy and keep the building comfortable regardless of the temperature outside. Contractors can replace flooring and roofing materials with sustainable alternatives — linoleum instead of vinyl, for example — or recycled wood.

New buildings should be built from the ground up with sustainable materials, but in areas where building a new school isn’t affordable, remodelling with sustainable materials becomes a useful alternative. Many of the green building materials are less expensive and more cost-effective than traditional materials, helping the school boards save money on their remodelling projects.

Solar for School Buildings

Schools use a lot of energy. According to the Department of Energy, powering K-12 schools costs more than $6 billion a year, and the American taxpayer absorbs much of that cost. Most of these schools have large flat roofs which are ideal for solar panel setups. By covering the roof with solar panels, a traditional K-12 school could offset much of its annual energy costs, or even eliminate them, leaving more funding to improve classrooms, buy more computers or whatever else is needed to provide a comprehensive education for its students.

Water Conservation

Water is a limited resource. Groundwater depletion is a growing problem, and more than half the planet faces water shortages every year. It’s difficult to estimate the exact amount of water that a school uses daily, but experts have determined that the average pre-schooler uses 18 litres of water every day, and the average elementary school student uses upwards of 48 litres.

Water conservation in education can be as simple as fixing leaks and replacing old toilets with newer low-flow models. Depending on how old the toilet is, it might be wasting between 3.5 and 6 gallons of water with every flush. A low flow toilet uses less than 1.6 gallons per flush. No water urinals in the boy’s restrooms can save a school 45,000 gallons of water a year.

Improving Internal Air Quality

We spend upwards of 87 percent of our lives indoors, which is why the EPA has begun to focus more on improving indoor air quality. Everything from uncleaned bathrooms to cleaning solvents can damage the quality of the air in the facility. Paying close attention to the interior air quality, including the cleaning materials being used in the facility. If possible, switch from traditional cleaners like bleach and ammonia to green alternatives that don’t release any VOCs. With indoor air being two to five times more polluted than the air outside, every little bit helps to keep students and teachers healthy.

Closing Thoughts

We teach students a lot about the need to be sustainable, but the buildings where they learn how to reduce, reuse, and recycle could use a lot of work to become more sustainable themselves. Adding solar power, upgrading old toilets to low-flow alternatives, and improving internal air quality can help to make these facilities more sustainable in the long run. With nearly 100,000 schools dotting the landscape, cities can reduce their carbon footprint and help to create a new generation of eco-conscious children in one fell swoop. Many old schools are already scheduled for remodelling so that city planners can kill two eco-friendly birds with one stone.


Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability freelance writer and blogger from Lancaster, PA. Check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter for the latest updates!