Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 3.21.55 PMTransitioning into a more sustainable society takes much more than political action—in addition to the petitions, protests, and policy victories, changes impacting our daily lives will also be required of each of us. Sustainability literacy is particularly important for children and families from urban, low-income or Black and Hispanic communities, who are disproportionately impacted by climate change and environmental health threats including poor air and water quality. Charter schools can play a vital role in educating and empowering children from underserved communities to take sustainability into their own hands.

Sustainable living lessons can benefit students and families, both. Low-income households, for instance, typically spend 14 percent of their total income on energy costs compared with 3.5 percent for other households. Lessons on energy saving could inspire students as well as their parents or guardians to adopt energy saving habits, producing the added benefit of helping their family lower their living expenses. Last year, Barack Obama Green Charter High School (BOGCHS) students began growing crops using a vertical garden planter called Phytopod™. They were tasked with determining whether this green technology can be an effective tool for developing a local, sustainable food source in Plainfield. Through this project-based learning (PBL) initiative, food sustainability was made personally relevant to students’ family and community. These examples only scratch the surface of how PBL can encourage green habit forming, and convey the impact of students’ personal decisions on their health, environment and community.

Here are 7 interactive lessons on sustainable living that charter school teachers and educators can introduce to students from all backgrounds:

1. Shop at thrift stores or join a local Buy Nothing group. While thrift stores have a reputation for selling secondhand clothing, they often have items including kitchenware, furniture, and sports equipment. Buying durable items such as these secondhand can yield big savings for families and support the environment by recycling still-good but unwanted items. Alternatively, students can be tasked with researching local Buy Nothing groups, or even organizing free clothes swaps between neighbors, families and friends.

2. Unplug home electronics when not in use. While leaving electronic devices and appliances plugged in at home is easy and convenient, it is harmful to the environment. Unplugging always-on or standby devices could prevent 44 Million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution each year, as well as save consumers $8 billion on annual utility bills. A take-home assignment could encourage students to, with parental oversight, put devices such as televisions and entertainment systems on power strips, and log how many times they turned parent-approved home devices on and off.

3. Start a garden. A classroom, backyard or indoor herb garden assignment can provide families with organically produced, inexpensive sources of nourishment, while bringing food supply and sustainability lessons to life. This lesson is accessible – not requiring access to a large yard – fruits and vegetables can be grown in containers that sit on a deck, patio, or cement walkway even. Not only does home garden produce work out much cheaper than store-bought organic produce, but many commonly used vegetables including lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers are very easy to grow.

4. Cancel junk mail. If a family is not in the market for car insurance or a new L.L. Bean coat, they may be throwing out a lot of junk mail. Students tasked with helping their family stop unwanted mail can consult the official website for the Consumer Credit Reporting Industry to opt out of prescreened offers of credit and insurance permanently, or for five years. The Data and Marketing Association (DMA) also offers an online tool that can be used to manage mail and opt out of most national telemarketing, mail, and email lists.

5. Carry a reusable water bottle. Purchasing bottled water is costly and bad for the environment. Plastic bottles can reportedly take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade, and cost up to 500 times more than tap water. Carrying a portable, reusable water bottle makes it easier to stay hydrated and costs less than a cent to fill up. Teachers can reward students for using reusable water bottles throughout the school day.

6. Recycle electronics. With new versions of electronics products being released each year, people are constantly faced with the option to upgrade. Schools can register with electronic waste  companies, which properly dispose of devices that are cracked, damaged or for another reason needs to be replaced. Electronic waste contains many harmful chemicals including mercury, lead, and arsenic. Student groups can be encouraged to coordinate school-wide electronic waste drives that raise awareness about electronic waste as a sustainability and environmental justice issue. Instead of being thrown in the trash, electronics such as smartphones, headphones, and televisions can be dropped off at stores like Best Buy, Staples, and Whole Foods. Every county in New Jersey also has drop off stations for recycling electronics.

7. Replace plastic bags with reusable bags. Most people know by now that plastic bags cause significant harm to the environment. Plastic bags break down into small, toxic particles over hundreds of years, they don’t biodegrade, and an estimated one million birds, 100,000 turtles, and countless other sea animals die each year from ingesting plastic. In all, the United States uses about 100 billion plastic bags per year with the average person using between 350 and 500. Educators can teach students the importance of carrying reusable bags in the car for grocery and other shopping trips instead of amassing hundreds of unnecessary plastic bags.


What other interactive sustainability lessons would work well for K-12 students? Share your ideas and experiences in the comments!



Steven King
Steven King is the Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Barack Obama Green Charter High School, New Jersey's first sustainability-focused charter school, cultivating the next generation of STEM and environmental leaders.