Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sustainable Shopping: Local Advice

I wasn't always Mr. Sustainable and still am a far cry from the perfect specimen of sustainaibility that everyone expects from my position. There was a time, I think it was centuries ago, that I didn't recycle, didn't consider carbon emissions and didn't mind that extra packaging on pretty much anything. Those days I didn't have air conditioning because no one did. I turned off the lights because we had to save the cash. Those times were different. Now it seems that subsidized utlities and gasoline provide much delight (and use) to voters and an obvious detriment to non-voting, non-demonstrating, non-political flora and fauna. If only trees could speak.

As I grew I realized that sometimes choices are taken away from us (as is the case of technology that moves faster than we can learn the intricacies of our soon-to-be-too-old smart phones) but sometimes they are easier than we might think. So began my life's calling to make small changes to make those natural things around me last just a bit longer. What did I find as I spoke to others and tried things myself?
  • That you can chose to shop with packaging as the central tenet of your shopping choices. (Hint: If you want less packaging stick with farmers' markets or local shops like Helen's at Naan Corner.)
  • You can live without plastic shopping bags at all. 
  • You can return things to stores and they'll take them happily, if only you ask. (e.g. I asked Ampang Grocers if I could buy fruit without those silly little styrofoam plates and shrink wrap. They said no, but I could return the plates to them. We've done so for years now and don't throw any away.  Helen's takes back used egg cartons so they can use them for other customers.  They also provide you with cardboard boxes if you don't have a bag.)
  • You can reduce your landfill-headed waste but not buying it to begin with (i.e. no packaging), recycling and composting. By doing all three of these my anecdotal data suggests you can reduce landfill waste by close to 80%, right here, right now. (By the way, in case you don't know, ISKL offers a composting-from-home program that you might consider if you would like. 83 families are already participating and a grand total of about 45,000 kg of compost has been kept out of the landfill. Yeay!)
  • You can purchase fruit or vegetables and ask the person weighing it to just put the price tags directly on the fruit. They'll look at you quizzically, perhaps, but by and large they will oblige. 
  • You can look at labels and see if products are sustainable, local, organic or all three. If all three, spend the extra cash.
  • You can make a point of mentioning the environment when you say "no, thank you". Often, when you say you're helping the environment, the salesperson will actually congratulate you. If you don't tell them why, no pat on the back for you and no point made to them = missed opportunity. 
  • You can find flights that are more direct, vacation closer to home or tax yourself for carbon offsets for your flights. (ISKL uses Climate Care but there are a number of good sites)
  • No one is perfect and I have no one to point the blaming finger to than myself when it comes to decisions and making better ones. Mistakes are part of the game, as are oversights.
  • It is difficult to change. It's even harder to change those around you. Perseverance is key. So is staying positive.
  • It's sort of liberating to recognize that you have such power over you daily dealings and that your choices are made for the right reasons. 

I was in an IB economics class earlier in the year and I was talking to students about making economic decisions that included critical analysis of environmental costs. After a rather heated discussion as to the nature of economy, the need for money and the reality of modern economics a student walked up to me and exclaimed, "Mr. Myers, you know? I never thought about it that way. That we should do it because it's the right thing to do. I was just thinking about the financial part of it". 

Perhaps one day that kid will grow up to make some sustainable decisions, because they are the right thing to do and, really, apart from offering some level of difficulty in that it challenges our lifestyle, perhaps he'll find that it's the foundation of becoming and being a global citizen of the 21st century. Let the future begin today. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Counting Crows? No, Counting Trees.

In 1993 a group called Counting Crows sang a song named Big Yellow Taxi. Do you remember it? Its lyrics still echo in my mind, "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot".  The song was a twist between lost love and lost nature but it's the nature part that I'd like to focus on.  

On March 1 small groups of ISKL girl scouts and boys scouts arrived at our school's guardhouses to meet with two botanists from FRIM and a nature guide from MNS. Together with their scout leaders and their parents they roamed the campuses, stopping at every tree. The group would look up, write things on small sheets of tape, and then proceed to tag the trees. "MA1", read first. "AC12", read another. Another member of the group indicated the same tag on a map of our campus. The botanists took notes as if in code, for reporting later on. As you walk around school, if you pay close attention, you'll notice these tags on the trees scattered all around. They are part of a "Tree Inventory" that we conducted, with this group, to identify every species of tree on our two campuses. The final report will show the number, location, species and origin of each tree that we have on our campuses. Though some might argue that it isn't important, the truth is that it was done with a purpose other than just merely to inventory. 

The hope is that in inventorying our trees we might be able to shed light on our community of the species we have on campus, how many of each species we have, whether they are native or not, whether they attract insects and birds and/or whether they would be a good "fit" for the new campus when, due to human-nature dynamics, we get to choose how nature will be represented. It was also a great initiative that came up in brainstorming during our Eco Schools theme of Nature/Biodiversity but also introduced - quite by coincidence - by John Hollenbach, ISKL's project manager. 

So, what did we find?  Well, each campus has well over 100 trees though most of them are non-native. There are a number of species represented but the 'highlights' for myself are the cinnamon trees I've been walking past for a decade now on the Ampang campus and the Banyan tree nestled in the back of the Melawati campus!  How delightful, even for a non-expert, to participate in the recognition of trees, to walk around and see identifying features and relating them to some pre-established memory bank or set of understandings!  Learning never ceases! What a wealth of opportunity that exists on our own campuses?!

Another stanza of the same song, Big Yellow Taxi, talks about "the took all the trees and put them in a tree museum". At ISKL we're hoping that parking lots will be limited (but appropriately useful) but that our our own campus will be a tree museum, an real-life natural learning center, for students to engage in, to enjoy, to sit under, to be part of.  When the final reports of what our tree museum looks like, I'll tell you all know about 'em. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

MS Global Issues Students Tackle Waste

Another little Eco-School related curricular link, albeit 'left over' from last year's theme of waste. The video below was the result of a challenge-based project that was given the MS Global Issues classes. One pair decided to focus their topic on waste on campus and, in particular, what kinds of trash that is thrown in the general waste that could be thrown in the recycling bins. It provided classmates with a moment to inspect their own behaviors and to recognize the value of making small efforts (in this case perhaps walking a bit further to place your disposables) in order to support the greater good. It's a great piece of evidence in how students are identifying issues, working to study them, and then sharing their findings with others around them.