Q: How do I convince my school to be more environmentally responsible?
A: You'd think our institutions of learning would be exemplary citizens, role models for the thousands of kids who pass through their hallowed corridors. Sorry, I'm hallucinating again. The reality is, when it comes to green issues, most schools need to be spanked and sent to detention. Sure, educators talk a good game about nourishing young minds, but many are poisoning them by spraying deadly pesticides on their grounds and mopping hormone-disrupting chemicals on their floors.
Whether you're a college kid trying to turn your campus on to solar power, a high schooler hoping to get your team into organic shorts or a parent lobbying to get the poisons out of your tot's play area, you can convince your school to go green. You just need to get organized.
As of the first of this month, your job got a little easier, because the city has started fining institutions that still insist on spraying without the city's okay. All public, private, lower, middle, upper schools and universities are subject to the bylaw. If you find out your school is still sneaking in some pesticides, call Toronto Public Health at 416-338-7600. Unfortunately, the bylaw doesn't yet apply to daycares in private homes (Toronto residences and renters can still use the stuff till 2007).
Whether or not your school's spraying, it's most definitely cleaning bathrooms and floors with toxic chems that have been linked to asthma, hormone disruption and allergies. But let's get real: they're not likely to switch to baking soda and vinegar. Give them a list of eco-friendly institutional cleaning products like Eco-Max's scent-free multi-purpose cleaner (available at www.eco-max.ca), free of smog-inducing VOCs and made of biodegradable, renewable ingredients. In fact, the Toronto district school board is testing it out right now.
But getting your school to embrace the greener way isn't as easy as saying, "Here, do this." And it's even harder when you're just one person. First thing you want to do is join up with a group of like-principled people. If you're at U of T or York, you can join the OPIRG (Ontario Public Interest Research Group) environmental collective. Ryerson's students union initiative for a sustainable environment (RISE) does stuff like promoting lug-a-mug and reusable bag programs. The national Sierra Youth Coalition (http://syc-cjs.org) is trying to unite student efforts in Toronto around climate change, campus sustainability and all kinds of big eco picture issues.
If you've got an eco idea you want to get off the ground, check out UTERN, U of T's Environmental Resource Network (http://utern.sa.utoronto.ca). It funds and helps promote about $20,000 worth of student-run eco projects.
In high school or middle school? Form an E club. Start by assessing your school's impact on the earth by measuring its ecological footprint. (Learn how at www.globalfootprints. org/issues/footprint/councquiz1_ns.htm.) Then pick an area in which you think your school is slacking. Do your homework on the issue before meeting with school staff and making your pitch.
Tons of kids have already convinced their schools to buy sweatshop-free uniforms. Why not go no sweat and organic for team T-shirts? American Apparel sells blank organic ones for the same price as non-organic (www.americanapparel.net). For tips on organizing your own campaign, check out Maquila Solidarity Network's How To Become A No Sweat School action guide (www.maquilasolidarity.org) or www.studentsagainstsweatshops.org.
For help on greening your school grounds, including funding for native trees and heirloom veggies, contact Evergreen (416-596-1495, www.evergreen.ca).
If the PTA isn't interested, concerned parents can start their own coalitions with other green moms and dads wanting to get organic milk in the cafeteria or low-VOC paints used in renovations. TDSB already has a Parents' Environmental Network. To join, e-mail PEN chair Jane Veit at email@example.com.
TDSB, by the way, rates the greenest schools in the system based on a questionaire asking things like "Does your school compost yard waste?" and "Do teachers print on both sides of the paper or turn off computers at night?" For a list of top schools, go to www. tdsb. on.ca and click on EcoSchools. The new Thomas L. Wells P.S. is Ontario's first "high-performance green school," with solar panels and all. For more real-world examples of eco-positive schools, check out www.thegreenguide.com's list of the top 10 green schools in the U.S.
And hey, if you're looking for something to lobby the province about, here's a good one: Mike Harris dropped environmental studies from the curriculum in 99 and now kids only get it in dribs and drabs. Want to see it revived? Bug your MPP.
Got a question?
Send your green consumer queries to firstname.lastname@example.org