With an increasing emphasis on environmental protection and activism, the Richmond School District recently introduced its new five-year sustainability and climate action plan.
In the end, the objective is simple: “We want to make waste socially unacceptable in the neighborhood,” explains Jonathan Ho, responsible for energy and sustainable development in the neighborhood.
While individual schools may have their own action plans, Ho says the district’s full-scale plan is the result of two years of effort. It is based on nine pillars of sustainability: leadership; learning and engagement; climate action; energy conservation; waste reduction; water conservation; land; purchase; and sustainable transportation.
When creating the plan, staff reviewed data, including district utility bills and solid waste measurements, and then set goals.
Some of these goals are mandated by agreements – for example, the school district, as a public sector organization, is required to be carbon neutral and report its greenhouse gas emissions annually. It must meet Clean BC targets of reducing building emissions by 50% and fleet emissions by 40% by 2030, compared to 2007 levels.
The pandemic has challenged the emissions target for buildings, with natural gas use increasing by 15-30% due to ventilation needs – windows left open, heating turned on to compensate for cold outside air and fans blowing , for example. The aim is to electrify as much as possible, and solutions such as solar panels will also be considered.
Meanwhile, Ho says good progress is being made on fleet goals by replacing older vehicles with more fuel-efficient and electric models. Electric charging stations may be installed depending on the possibilities of locations. Ho says the city’s flat topography and relatively low school bus mileage is a good match for the battery capacity of most electric vehicles.
Although the plan details a number of goals, Ho says the solid waste goals will more directly affect the schools’ day-to-day operations.
“When I was a student at Palmer, I started one of the first environmental clubs,” he adds. “(At that time) the blue bin for paper recycling was a radical concept.”
Solid waste is separated into three main categories: garbage, recyclables and organics. Recyclable materials are then separated into paper bins and containers. While the city diverts about 80% of its waste from the landfill, the school district only diverts half that amount.
“There’s no reason why the majority of people, staff and students, can’t do at school what we do at home,” Ho says.
The first step is to not make solid waste in the first place, which is where measures like the city’s upcoming single-use plastics ban come into play. Anything that could generate solid waste should use if possible recyclable products.
Signage can also help students put their recyclables in the correct bin. More than five percent of “contamination” in any waste stream, that is, things that should go to another bin, is subject to a surcharge in Metro Vancouver.
And in addition to avoiding this surcharge, there is another monetary incentive to reduce waste: waste is the most expensive to dispose of, while recycling is free except for a small processing cost.
Ho says there hasn’t been a significant amount of personal protective equipment in the waste stream, as most students typically use cloth masks rather than disposable masks that end up in the trash. At the start of the pandemic, increased cleaning created more litter, although this has since improved.
A campaign partially funded by BC Hydro is to replace lighting with energy-efficient LED options. Improved lighting also includes presence sensors and the ability to dim the lighting or change its frequency.
New gardens and other initiatives will improve schoolyards, and the district also aims to incorporate Indigenous perspectives on plants and the environment as well as sustainability in general.
Real-time data is also collected through audits in several schools. Richmond High School students raised money for solar panels to help the district understand how much energy is generated in this way. And Ho says maximizing air ventilation will remain important even after COVID-19 becomes rampant.
While the official plan only covers the next five years, Ho says he has projections and plans out to 2050. Bigger plans like electrifying buildings and bus fleets are priced over time. , because public school districts cannot run a budget deficit. Some solutions are practical, such as replacing items in need with more energy-efficient versions.
“If we still have to spend money and we know what that regular lifecycle replacement is, it allows us to spend the money smarter,” Ho says.
He adds that in addition to Richmond’s Sustainability Advisory Committee, which includes students, parents, union representatives and members of the district’s leadership teams, there are others working behind the scenes. These people (operations managers, learning services staff and others) perform tasks such as replacing windows and installing rooftop units, which are not as publicly visible.
“At the end of the day, we want to make sure that we’re good stewards of the environment with what we do from a business perspective,” says Ho. “But we also want to make sure that the students we form have the same commitment to sustainability and climate action.”
JOIN THE CONVERSATION