Earth Day and Schools and Universities: Why Care About Earth Day?

Earth Day is celebrated each year on April 22nd and for many it is a very important event. Most schools and universities will celebrate the day with speeches from environmentalists and school leaders, educational programs, tree plantings, habitat and campus clean-ups, recycling events, energy and water conservation competitions, fairs, community service activities, and more.

It appears that environmental awareness is increasing among students, which is a good thing and should help address green and sustainability issues over the long term. The importance of this cannot be overstated especially since global population has already passed 7 billion on its way to 9 or 10 billion within these students’ lifetimes.

Because most of the population growth will come from developing countries that at the same time are becoming more affluent, the demands for food, water, clothing, health services, fuels, building materials, textbooks, computers and other materials will skyrocket. So too will costs, which will directly affect U.S. schools and universities.

Case in point: toilet tissue. U.S. consumption of toilet tissue is 65 pounds per person per year. Just five years ago in China consumption was only two pounds per person per year. Today the demand in China has increased to 10 pounds per person per year, a five-fold increase! And it is anticipated that, due to their growing affluence, demand will double in just 3 more years. While China’s per person consumption will still be less than the United States, their overall demand will exceed ours due to the fact that their population is four times greater. This trend will be repeated in developing countries around the world.

While these issues may seem far away or in the distant future, they are already affecting poorer U.S. communities as global competition for basic commodities such as energy, water, fuels, food and building materials increase costs for schools and reduce funds for operations and repairs, teacher and staff salaries, supplies, and more. All of this comes at a time when funding for schools and universities is declining.

Because schools and universities are finding it increasingly difficult to meet even the most basic cleaning and facility needs, Earth Day can be an excellent opportunity to help students and staff, and perhaps more importantly, administrators, budget officers, and community members (voters) understand the importance of the facility and custodial departments. It is an opportunity for facility and custodial departments to “beat the drum” and visibly demonstrate their contribution to protecting health while reducing environmental impacts.

If this opportunity is missed, it becomes too easy to minimize the importance of the work being done. As the old customer service adage goes, “If customers aren’t told what is being done for them, they will assume nothing is being done.” This makes it too easy to take the work for granted and cut funding for facilities and custodial activities to fund departments and programs considered more important.

So this year roll out the “green carpet” and beat the drum. Set up a display and showcase your Green Cleaning program. Proudly explain to students, staff and the community-at-large the efforts by the custodial department to reduce consumption of chemicals, paper, cleaning equipment and other supplies. These reductions can be quantified into environmental savings such as the gallons of petroleum, kilowatts of electricity, cars removed from the road, tons of CO2 averted, trees saved, tons of materials kept out of landfills, and other environmental metrics. And yes, even dollars saved!

Stephen Ashkin