Awareness has been growing steadily in recent years as to how our infrastructure and lifestyles impact on the environment. The focus on “greening” public spaces is growing and, with 30 000 schools in South Africa, the opportunity is extensive to make a positive impact on our future generations.
Green schools, which are sometimes called sustainable or eco-schools, are defined by the Centre for Green Schools as having zero environmental footprint (encompassing energy, water, waste and carbon), a positive impact on occupant health and performance, and a drive to instil environmental literacy in learners. The movement is still in its infancy in the country, with only a handful of green schools currently in existence.
Orefile Primary, in Olievenhoutbosch, Gauteng, is often cited as an exemplary green school. “[It] is categorised as green because it was built using Razorbill’s ecofriendly lightweight, steel-frame solutions and cement-free concrete. The school [also] uses recycled water and renewable energy sources,” says principal, Clever Shukwambani.
Three years after moving in, Shukwambani says that beyond knowing how much healthier for the environment their school is, the staff and learners enjoy massive physical benefits each day: “Our classrooms are cool when the weather is hot and warm when it’s cold.” According to Shukwambani, the learners and teachers alike are proud of their green credentials, and make it a point to keep the school free of rubbish by recycling all their paper and plastic.
Other green schools in Gauteng include Northriding Secondary in Randburg and Noordwyk Secondary in Midrand. Opened in 2014, these two schools have been fitted with solar panels, and rain-harvesting systems on the premises mean that purified rainwater can be reused for everyday purposes. Construction began in November 2012, with the Northriding school costing R55-million and Noordwyk coming in at R52-million. Orefile had cost a total of R33,4-million by the time it was opened in 2013.
Generally, funding for green schools has come primarily from the government but companies such as AfriSam, Sasol and Mustek have also come forward to offer financial input or deliver in terms of innovation or eco-literacy. When making investments, companies tend to make contributions that align with their corporate mandates or values.
Mustek Limited, a technology company, heard about the opening of Orefile Primary and wanted to contribute. Michael Cassidy, head of Renewable Energy at Mustek Limited, explains: “We wanted to do something besides putting solar panels on the roof for electricity, and after some investigation came across this new technology for solar-powered toilets. We [also] wanted to give renewable energy some exposure. It’s a unique and different concept and we decided to sponsor the school.” The total investment to install four structures and toilets at Orefile Primary was in the region of R50 000.
AfriSam, one of South Africa’s largest cement producers, say that they have a specific responsibility to be more ecofriendly. “By nature our business, the cement industry, is responsible for about 5% of the world’s greenhouse gases [that are] released into the atmosphere. [At] AfriSam, one of our values is “Planet” and, as such, we make every effort to minimise the emission of harmful gases.”
As a result of their research and innovation, AfriSam have produced their Eco-Building Cement, which boasts a carbon footprint almost half that of the world average. The company also holds the annual AfriSam SAIA Award for Sustainable Architecture. This award recognises projects that make a positive contribution to their communities and that reduce environmental impacts through strategies such as: the reuse of existing structures; energy and water conservation; and the use of sustainable or renewable construction materials.
Vele Secondary School in Limpopo was a 2012 winner of the award. The school was radically altered from a typical dilapidated rural learning facility into a pioneering South African educational and community resource. The Department of Education funded the majority of the construction costs, and an additional R5 million rand was donated to the project by Oprah’s Angel Network.
Samuel Makhado, principal of Vele Secondary, says that before the renovations, their biggest problems were overcrowding and improper ventilation/insulation. East Coast Architects, the minds behind Vele Secondary’s overhaul, included various features in their design – including a rainwater-harvesting system with a storage capacity of 200 000 litres of water. A permaculture food and medicinal garden is situated in the heart of the school, and provides sufficient vegetables and fruit for the school’s needs; the garden serves as a source of medicinal plants for the community and green roofs provide insulation and showcase indigenous flora. Solar energy is provided for computers and water pumping, while electricity sub-metering and display is used in energy management and education.
To eliminate the need for flushing, dry composting toilets have been installed. Because biogas burns in a similar way to natural gas, it can be used for cooking and heating, as well as powering electric generators, all of which are in place at the school.
The current drought is a reminder that South Africa is a water-scarce country. Fortunately, Sasol has stepped up and decided to invest in water-sustainability issues. The company is focused on creating a culture in which water is valued, and viewed as a precious natural resource.
Sasol has partnered with various municipalities, the Department of Water Affairs, the Department of Basic Education and Rand Water to share the water message. One of their flagship projects is Busa Mesi, which seeks to minimise water losses in schools in the Metsimaholo municipal area near Sasolburg, through water education and repairs to leaking infrastructure and plumbing fixtures at schools.
Where schools have already been built, the opportunity lies in raising awareness and changing behaviour. Under the eco-schools programme implemented by the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, 1 166 South African schools are registered, from rural under-resourced ones to private institutions, ensuring environmental awareness and responsibility is taught at all levels, and in all settings and locations.
Green schools are powerful sites for teachers, learners and the broader community to adopt new behaviours, and for companies to deliver real-world solutions.
Green Building Council
The greening of schools offers a unique opportunity to address issues such as poor infrastructure, inadequate equipment, and school buildings and playgrounds. Going green is an extraordinarily cost-effective way to enhance student learning, reduce health and operational costs, and, ultimately, increase quality, facilities and resources.