Zero waste PTAs

Heather Park looks at how you can minimise your impact on the environment, and help your school community become more eco-friendly

We’ve heard a lot about schools trying to become greener. But it’s been more of a challenge over the past year, due to tighter budgets and an increased reliance on single-use items during the pandemic.

With fundraising events starting to take place once more, now might be a good time to start thinking about the amount of waste your PTA generates. So, what steps can you take to reduce waste, and how can you get your sustainability message out there?

It’s easier, of course, to continue doing things the way they’ve always been done. But PTA activities can produce a lot of waste, and many in the school community will feel uncomfortable about this, all too aware of the climate emergency we’re facing.

Reducing waste is on the agenda globally. In November 2021, the UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), where heads of state, climate experts and campaigners will meet to discuss how the world will collectively tackle climate change. The publicity around COP26 is sure to create a good opportunity to put our planet at the forefront of your PTA’s thinking.

Lead the way

The Chartered Institute of Fundraising’s environmental change toolkit states that ‘by making sure the actions and choices of your charity reflect your values and are fully aligned with your mission, you send a coherent message to current and potential supporters’. At the core of every PTA is the learning, development and progress of children, which is why PTAs must play their part in protecting pupils’ future.

Alex Green, programme manager at climate change charity Ashden and PTA chair at St Augustine’s Catholic Primary School in Tunbridge Wells, explains how schools and PTAs can use their place in society to create change. ‘The role of the school is as a community leader, and the PTA fits within that,’ she says. ‘Schools are a fundamental part of all communities – something we’ve seen during Covid – and how they use this influence is key. If the school makes a policy about not having single-use plastic in lunchboxes, for example, it changes what is done locally. These actions feed directly into the PTA, which can influence through events. You can lead by example in what you do.’

Where to begin

The most important thing to remember is that this is a gradual approach, not an overnight change. ‘Look at it as a journey,’ says Green. ‘Agree as a PTA to commit to a policy change, such as removing all single-use plastic within a year. PTAs can be quite stuck in their ways, so explain why you’re making the change. For example, if you decide you’re only going to serve vegetarian food at an event, explain that it makes preparation easier, it’s cheaper, and it cuts the event’s carbon impact.

Get people thinking. Start with one or two campaigns that you think will work and go from there, developing your plans as momentum builds. Here are some event ideas and initiatives you can implement right now:

Second-hand uniform sales

Families don’t need to buy new items when so many good-quality garments are in circulation already. Ask for donations of outgrown uniform and sell it on to other parents. List items on your Facebook page or use a dedicated online marketplace.

Prizes

If you’re awarding prizes for sponsored activities, avoid sweets wrapped in plastic or cheap plastic items that will go straight in the bin. Instead, choose books, colouring pencils or vouchers for local shops or services.

Sustainable crafts

Build a fundraising event around items that people already own. For example, a craft evening based on upcycling things commonly found in the home. Fielding Primary School PTFA previously ran a sustainable craft stall at its fair. ‘T-shirts were turned into bags and hairbands, fabric offcuts and stuffing were made into fabric monsters, and old greetings cards were turned into new ones,’ says events coordinator Mary Horesh.

Paper

With so many online alternatives available, you should rarely need to print anything these days. Newsletters, forms, treasure-trail maps and event flyers can all
be easily produced, distributed and filled in online.

Recycling

Many products are hard to recycle at the roadside, so give people the opportunity to reduce landfill while raising funds.

Printed products

Eliminate single-use plastic by selling school-branded reusable products. When offering items, explain why a drinks bottle or canvas bag will make a difference. This will get people into the right mindset, ready for when events recommence.

Get people on board

People are what make change happen, so raising awareness in your community is essential. Before Culvers House PTA introduced its eco code, (link to other feature) it started making smaller changes, such as buying reusable decorations for discos instead of balloons and investing in reusable plates and cups for events. ‘Demonstrating that this change could work made it much easier to pledge to avoid single-use plastics altogether,’ says secretary Rachel Khan. ‘A gradual build-up instead of an immediate overhaul gives you proven successes, without overwhelming supporters and volunteers.’

Alex Green agrees: ‘Society is changing, and it’s becoming easier to encourage people to take action against climate change. In schools, it’s something the children can drive. There’s a real increase in students wanting their schools to be eco, so bring it into PTA discussions.’

Work with the school

Join forces with your school to create a robust, impactful campaign. Find out about its ecological aims and complement them. Talk to the head about signing up to be a Let’s Go Zero school or joining Eco-Schools.

‘Joint activities will give focus to the climate issue,’ says Green. ‘At our school, the children studied the environment across their subjects for a week, culminating in a PTA-run non-uniform day fundraiser where they wore green and blue.’

Continue the conversation with your school when it comes to spending funds. ‘If you’re asked to buy equipment, make sure it is as low-energy as possible and doesn’t come with loads of disposable elements. Whatever you’re funding, be aware of its ethics, sustainability and energy use. Suggest PTA funds might be used to create wildlife areas or forest schools, improving students’ sustainable education. Spend money in ways that are less carbon intensive, while creating opportunities to teach about carbon literacy,’ continues Green.

Community support

While there are organisations out there that can offer support to schools, it can be harder for PTAs to know where to turn to for support. ‘Facebook is one answer,’ says Green. ‘Communicating through Facebook groups and other networks is a key source of support. Most PTAs are trying to figure out the same things, so share ideas and ask for help when you need it.’

Mary Horesh of Fielding Primary School PTFA started a local WhatsApp group. ‘The group has helped us link up with like-minded PTAs in our area, which allows us to share initiatives and resources. The discussions within the group have led to better dialogue between local schools, rather than it being a competition,’ she says.

It’s important that you don’t measure your success with someone else’s ruler. What you’re able to achieve will be unique to your school and community. Take small steps, identify changes and keep sharing your passion with those around you. The combined effort of PTAs across the country will make a massive difference to the world we live in, and the futures of the students whose lives we strive so hard to enrich.

Find more eco-friendly tips here.