Going Back to a Green School

Back to school shopping is serious business. From backpacks to binders, sneakers to stationery, parents drop a lot of cash to keep their kids happy in the classroom. This year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is suggesting that they spend that money wisely – and sustainably – by buying from stores that have earned an Energy Star. The EPA works with nearly 150 retail companies nation-wide, helping them optimize their energy use and make significant cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions. So buying your kids’ school supplies from an Energy Star labeled store does make a difference, because those stores are rated among the top 25% in the country, in terms of energy performance. Of course, even the EPA cannot deny that the really sustainable solution is to just get parents to buy less, and to discourage a throw-away culture. But choosing a greener store is a good start in the right direction.

This year, the EPA also signed up 36 schools in New England for a Community Energy Challenge that aimed to reduce their energy use by at least ten percent. As part of the challenge, schools improved their insulation; installed new boilers, temperature controls, and carbon dioxide fan controls; looked into water conservation methods; and even hired an energy manager. The results are already showing, with up to 30% savings on energy bills. And by centering the challenge on community, the EPA has encouraged the schools to see themselves as part of a local network, and to build partnerships with regional utilities, other non-profits, and local businesses, to keep them on track with their green goals. All 36 schools earned an Energy Star before the start of this school year.

School staff is also being asked to closely scrutinize the impact of their buildings on the health of their students. The EPA began a School Air Toxics Monitoring Initiative last year, to check outdoor air at 63 schools in 22 states, for unsafe levels of chemicals like lead or hexavalent chromium. Full reports for each school are posted on the agency’s website, so parents and officials know if their children are breathing in poison while they’re playing in the school grounds. And among the many free resources that the EPA provides for school staff and parents is the Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools kit, to help ensure that schools clean the air up inside their buildings as well.

The EPA has made attempts to get involved in the classroom, by providing teaching material about ozone layer depletion and UV radiation, through its SunWise program. It also organizes an annual National Radon Poster Contest for school children, which spreads awareness about the carcinogenic chemical in indoor environments. But the agency generally leaves teaching to the teachers, focusing instead on the environment in which teaching takes place, and it seems to be making a much more serious push for more energy efficient schools this year. As significant municipal facilities, sustainable school buildings can have a positive impact on the carbon footprint of an entire community. But far more importantly, by making sure that they’re going back to a green school, the EPA is setting a great example for the next generation.

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