Sunday 10 July 2022

Can We Make School Libraries More Sustainable?

Earlier this year my local council introduced food waste collection. I know a lot of areas have had this for a while but the only items we could recycle prior to this were glass, paper, cardboard, tins and certain plastic bottles. However, I took comfort in the fact that the rest of my rubbish was going to an Energy Recovery Facility rather than landfill (and if you ever get the opportunity to go to an open day at one of these then grab it, it’s quite fascinating). But having to reorganise my kitchen waste seemed to kick off a “reduce, reuse, recycle” mini enterprise. I discovered that I could recycle plastic containers (the sort that grapes come in) at my local supermarket and was amazed at how many I collected in just a couple of weeks. I collect soft plastic (like bread bags) and put these into the collection bin at whatever supermarket I’m visiting. I’ve even started collecting glass jars and lids, offering them free on the local Facebook page, rather than recycling them and discovered the local pre-school use cardboard toilet roll tubes for crafts. I have managed to get my general rubbish down to about 1 bag per fortnight!

This focus on reducing/reusing/recycling has also made me more aware of information around environmental issues. For example, I had never really thought about food waste and the fact that, as well as the food being thrown away, the water and energy that has gone into producing it is also wasted. If you want to find out more, read this article by the British Science Association on the impacts of food waste.

The central theme of this year’s CILIP conference was sustainability where their Green Manifesto was launched - I know this is aimed at library authorities rather than individuals but it got me wondering whether we could make our school libraries more environmentally friendly and sustainable. As they say, “every little helps”.

Ideally the drive for sustainability should come from the top down with school-wide green policies and all staff on board with long-term projects but if your school isn’t quite there yet, there are still things you can do, small gestures that will send a message to the school community and, possibly, encourage others to get on board. An important aspect of any school library is to cultivate awareness of issues, inform and educate. Most of us support national and international environmental events with displays and book lists so why not take this a step further and consider if there are any practical things you can do?

·     Books are an obvious starting point. Libraries need to be weeded (I’ve written a blog on why) but what do you do with the books no longer needed? Unfortunately the glue binding pages together and their plastic covers make them unsuitable for recycling although if this is your only option you could guillotine the pages from the cover. There are lots of other possibilities though:

- give or sell to students if suitable;
- donate to charity or put into a book swap if in good condition and information is still accurate;
- sell to a company that takes second-hand books, they may not take many but who knows, you might raise enough funds to buy a couple of new books for your library;
- reuse for art projects, craft material, backgrounds for wall displays;
- get together with local schools and see if you can organise book swaps. You can email a list of the titles you have available and see if anyone is interested. Or if you attend local school librarian group meetings take them along (I used to do this!).

Unfortunately, in a school environment you need to cover books – any school librarian will tell you they just don’t last otherwise and start to look very tatty very quickly, which means you end up throwing them away before you’ve had good use out of them. Bad for the environment and the budget! Bioplastic material is available and Helsinki’s libraries have started to use this on their books; perhaps we need to ask our book suppliers to do them same?

·    I know the temptation is to laminate signs and posters, especially if they’re in reach of students and that nice, shiny finish makes them look more professional but this makes them unsuitable for recycling. So ask yourself – do I really need to cover this piece of paper in plastic? Anything that’s only going to be used once doesn’t need that level of protection and neither do notices that are out of reach. The other aspect of this practice is that glossy finishes are sometimes difficult to read for those with learning difficulties and visual disabilities so having non-glossy signs is more inclusive.

·     Think about where you use plastic within the library. Do you give out anything in plastic bags - could these be swapped for paper ones? If you work with younger children are their book bags made from fabric? Do you put paperwork into plastic wallets rather than just punch holes in it for filing? Check whether your labels and stickers are biodegradable.

Are there any other areas in the school that use single-use plastic and can you get them on board? For example, does the canteen use plastic cutlery? Does the school give away free plastic pens on Open Days? For most of these items, there’s usually a much better and environmentally-friendly alternative. I know this may not always be the cheapest option and, with budgets being cut further and further, it’s often a knee-jerk reaction to go for the cheapest but there has to be a balance. Perhaps if you can’t afford an environmentally-friendly giveaway then the time has come to drop them altogether?

·     Check the environmental accreditation of your library suppliers. Do they use environmentally friendly or sustainable materials? You may not have a choice here but you could contact them and ask them to swap; for example, if you are being sent journals in plastic bags (there’s much better alternatives available these days). If you don’t raise this aspect, they won’t realise it’s important to you. Although reuse and recycling is good, the best thing is to reduce and this has to start at the source.

·      If you are replacing any furniture and fixings the same thing goes. But have a look for any second-hand items first, especially if you just need some extra shelves or book stands. My home office is full of Ikea Kallax units which are perfect for storing files and magazines as well as books – I got them all second-hand online. Facebook Marketplace can be searched by area as can Freecycle. And if you want some jigsaws, art materials or craft items for an after-school club, the former is a great source. There’s a bit of effort involved as you have to collect them and you’ll need to be able to pay cash and claim it back but it’s worth it for the savings as well as the pleasure in knowing you’ve prevented something from going into the waste bin.

·    While we’re thinking about second-hand items, there can’t be many school librarians who haven’t had a trawl through charity shops. I absolutely do not think school libraries should rely on these sources for their stock (school libraries need budgets!) – if you do you’ll end up with a very unbalanced collection as you have to buy what you find rather than what you want or need. But there’s no doubt that charity shops hold some gems … books that replace worn out favourites or provide multiple copies of popular titles.

·     Another area where you may be able to have an impact, albeit small, is on energy use within the library. Switch off everything at the end of the day, even screens. According to the Energy Saving Trust, the average UK household spends £55 a year powering appliances left on standby and most libraries will have far more computers than the average home. Laptops use less energy than desktops so, if you get the opportunity, swap them. I have a smart meter and can see the readings drop immediately when I switch things off.

For some reason, many schools put their libraries into quite gloomy rooms so you have no option but to keep the lights on all the time. But have a look at any natural light sources you do have – can you place desks near these so that lights don’t always have to be switched on? Are you using LED bulbs? Can you have your lights linked to a movement sensor so they only go on when somebody is in the room? With energy costs increasing, it makes sense to try and use as little as possible so chat to your site team to see if you can make any improvements.

·     If you want to encourage a school-wide recycling effort, a good place to start is with the local council; the majority of authorities have special waste and recycling schemes for schools so contact them for advice on collection times, bins, etc. After all, you’ll be helping them reach their recycling targets. Involve your staff with this and tell them what you’re doing. Put recycling containers around the school, easy to find and clearly labelled with what can be put into them. My last school had paper recycling boxes all over the place that used to be collected by an outside agency (though I used to get my scrap paper – photocopying rejects -from the reprographics department) so see if this can be extended to other items.

·    Recycling businesses may also be interested. Have a search for any within your community and see what they can offer in the way of bins and collection. A good example are companies that take broken IT equipment and either refurbish it for use within local community projects or recycle it environmentally; does this happen in your school?

I have always assumed that storing documents online was much better than paper versions but never thought about the fact that technology also has a carbon cost. Apparently the “carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions …. similar to the amount produced by the airline industry globally” and if every adult in the UK sends one less “thank you” email it could save over 16,000 tonnes of carbon a year (the equivalent of taking 3334 diesel cars off the road) (Smart Guide to Climate Change)

·     Print cartridges and toners are another item that can be recycled. Many charities will provide a box for these items that can be freeposted when full; I used to have one in the library. The Recycling Factory works with the British Heart Foundation, it’s easy to sign up to the scheme and you’ll get paid too! Measure what you collect and create infographics to inform your school community – often when people see the difference you’re making they’ll get on board. And hopefully they’ll be appalled by how much is thrown away so will look at how they can reduce this amount.

·     Finally, get your students involved! Most of them are well aware of the climate crisis and would probably love to help with various projects. You could create a Green Team (maybe a couple of green champions from each year group) and are likely to find they’ll take over many of these suggestions, encouraging their peers to also get involved. And how about collaborating with other departments on eco-projects? Our local council is finally starting to rewild grass verges – a win-win for everyone but especially for wildlife – do you have any areas in the school where this can be done?

There are probably lots of other things people are doing in their individual libraries. Once you start thinking of ways to reduce/reuse/recycle, it’s surprising how many you can come up with!