Anna Whyte visited Bali’s Green School, where the focus is on students coming up with answers to the big environmental questions.
In this unusual school, gone are traditional classrooms, instead a large bamboo structure surrounded by trees and chickens towers above the bushes.
There are no walls, tour groups walk through for a glimpse of the school that says it educates for sustainability, creating the green leaders of the future in the process.
The private, international school has students from around the world, with fees of between $14,000 and $24,000 a year. Money from tours funds the 12% of its students who come from Bali and around Indonesia on scholarships.
It has initiatives such as inviting local Balinese students from the area to study English at a cost of five kilograms worth of rubbish. It also has a student-initiated biodiesel school bus that runs on used cooking oil, with the residue made into bio soap.
So what happens in the Green School?
In Bali I drive out about an hour from Denpasar to the Green School. Once I arrive, I get taken up two flights of the open-air bamboo tower where I meet teacher Francis Mollet.
He tells me about his students who create business models spurred by experiences with pollution.
One model sees students working with business owners to swap plastic straws for reusable ones.
He said straws were just a “drop in the ocean, but at the same time it’s what it stands for and it’s showing the kids that with a bit of ingenuity and a bit of hard work you can put forward a solution rather than sitting around on the beach causing the problem”.
He said it was about providing viable alternatives.
“Unless you’re showing them an alternative that they can viably make money with, then you’re wasting time.”
Fellow teacher Harriet Burrows told me about the river booms class, made from used plastics bottles to catch waste coming down Bali rivers.
“It comes all the way down and it ends up in the ocean or along the beaches. It’s not a nice thing for Bali to be showing to the world, especially when tourism is such a big income for them.
She said seeing the waste was confronting, but it does make the problem a reality for many people, and working on the frontline of environmental change was imperative for the children at the school.
“They should definitely be the people asking for change and holding people accountable but also being accountable to themselves, thinking ‘what can we do better?’.”
Baxter Smith, who co-ordinates the school’s prototyping facility, tells me of the benefits of instilling a reusable mindset in students.
Here the students design and create sustainable products in the ‘zero-waste space’.
“There’s a very big gap of understanding between buying something that is made of plastic and what you do with it,” Baxter says.
“Part of it is creating the mentality that if you do recycle it, there’s value in that. Part of that is questioning, do you even need it in the first place? If we can generate those ideas around classes and give students the tools to think differently about it, that would be a really big success.
“We can put out faith in the younger generations because they’re being given the information for maybe the first time, in that sense they haven’t closed their mind off to alternative or opportunities,” Baxter says.
But there needs to be a focus on adults. “If we wait for the younger generation to get to a point where they can make decisions, that’s 10, 15 20 years, that’s too late.”
Baxter said plastic won’t leave our lives. “It’s just too useful. It saves countless lives in the medical industry. It’s not going anywhere.”
The school also has a class dedicated to the science, social and enterprise perspectives of periods.
Harriot Burrows, who runs the class of 35 students, said they look at menstruation through a sustainability lens, and explore what the products are made of, how that impacts the environment and well-being and how it affects the local and wider economy.
They’re making reusable sanitary pads and are looking into creating silicon medical-grade menstrual cups, which they plan to take into communities to give an alternative to using plastic products.
She describes the sustainable menstruation industry as having great potential.
“It’s about turning it from something scary to something that is normal. It’s starting with science, starting with the facts of it, then moving on from there.
So is Green School’s education model the way of the future?
Waikato University’s environmental education senior lecturer Dr Chris Eames tells me New Zealand has a strong sustainability programme called EnviroSchools that give about a third of schools access to resources on environment and sustainable futures.
It pulls it into the mainstream, public school system, so it becomes part of student’s everyday life, Chris says.
“What we do need is for every single student to be expose to environmentally suitable ideas.”
The crux is that it is not compulsory for schools to implement and the funding model - central government, local government and donations - can see the initiative blocked if councils are not on board.
The school’s model is now set to hit Kiwi shores, with a New Zealand Green School coming to Taranaki, aimed to be completed by February 2020. The Indonesia experience suggests there will be plenty of interest, the test will be how successful it is in meeting its goal of improving the environment.
* Anna Whyte travelled to Indonesia courtesy of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.