Melbourne Girls’ College (MGC) has made some big headlines this year being the first secondary school in Australia to go bin-free, a massive statement that is part of their ‘National Parks Scheme’. We had a chat with Lucy Skelton, student leader from the environment team, as well as two MGC teachers Paula McIntosh, the passionate brain behind the idea, and Andrew Vance, a sustainability educator of many years.
How did your waste-free journey begin?
Paula: There were lots of things that sparked our interest about waste. One personally was watching War on Waste with Craig Reaucassel and Andrew had started measuring waste to landfill that our school was contributing. In 2018, we worked out we had contributed 977 cubic metres of waste to landfill within a period of a year, which is an extraordinary for the size of the site and number of people we had on the site. Which is double what a school should be producing so that really made us very concerned and made us think we really needed to do something about it.
Andrew: My connection to all sustainability stems from nature. Being so close to the river and seeing litter going into there (from MGC – see photo), continues to motivate me and reminds me that working on waste is solving a biodiversity and the human impact on the natural environment problem. Over the years we’ve had lots of interventions that we’ve tried to improve how we manage our waste and a lot of that has been focused on recycling. I’ve come to realise that recycling is not the solution. We need to avoid. We need to focus on reusing, so that’s why I’ve been so enthusiastically supporting this project.
What have been some highlights so far?
Paula: One of the highlights would have to be the amount of media attention we got when we launched the initiative, that was really exciting and we just found that we had made a statement about plastic pollution in a big way. We were blown away by the attention it received. Just bringing it back to the more local level, we’re really pleased with the state of the school grounds so far. There is a bit of litter here and there, mostly around the canteen which we’re monitoring closely but there isn’t much contamination in our compost cones. It’s been a real highlight the respect that the students have shown to the composting devices.
Andrew: It definitely has not always been that way; contamination, especially the worm bins, has been a major issue. I’ve been genuinely surprised about the lack of contamination in the compost cones. It’s been really good.
Paula: Another highlight has been the canteen, they’ve introduced bioplastic take away containers and cups. Students were expected to take that waste home with them in their bags, now they can go in the compost as well. That has been a great win. We launched the NPS before the cafe made that change. It’s really forced them to get on board with that, it’s a big step for them. We’re really pleased that they’re doing their bit as well.
Can you tell us more about the NPS – National Parks Scheme?
Paula: With the NPS scheme, we knew that other schools had done this and we’re not the first ones who’ve done it but we had a pretty good feeling that we would be the first secondary school or the size that we are to do something this drastic. The thing is we gave it a name, National Park Scheme, so that when people could really identify with it and make that link – what we do in National Parks and what we do at Melbourne Girls’ College. So if you bring it in, you take it out. ‘Leave only footprints’ type of idea behind it.
Paula (cont.): I’ve spent a lot of time as a child in national parks and now my own family, we spend a lot of time in nature. It just sort of dawned on me, why don’t we ask people to do this in their day to day lives? If you’re going to take waste somewhere, you should responsible for it and take it home. I’m part the sustainability team with Andrew and planted the seed with the students. This is how it happens in national parks, why can’t it happen at a school. The girls really liked the idea and they’re really passionate about environmental causes so they jumped on it. They loved the idea and put out a survey monkey to see if the wider community thought it was a good idea too. The survey came back was that 80% people gave it the thumbs up for the idea, let’s pursue it further. So it started from there.
How have you motivated people to shift habits and mindsets?
Paula: There’s lots of different ways that we’ve tackled it. We’ve got television screens throughout the school, so we update them with Powerpoints and images fairly frequently. Showing images of what plastic pollution can do, balance realistic and being positive with our message.
Andrew: We’ve been communicating with staff explaining why. A lot of the staff knew, they had been learning, especially as Paula mentioned, the show War on Waste, most recently learning about that. Then connecting the dots to the wider world in what they can do themselves and getting them on board to have conversations with students. Reminding them to have these conversations with students have been really important. Obviously taking the bins away are a great reminder. ‘Oh yeah, oops brought my lunch in glad wrap. I’ll have to take it home and remember to do better next time.’
Paula: Staff, as well as students is important. We’re trying to keep the message out there, with the newsletter and getting some key teachers on board to sell our message. There are other staff who are interested in sustainability so they’ve talked with their students, establishing a ground swell and keep that going. We’ve also communicate with our parents through our newsletter.
How did you approach leadership to gain their support?
Lucy: The approach that we took was through communication and education. We really wanted to make sure that teachers and students saw that this was a positive, that we were doing this for them and us. We didn’t want to be seen to be taking something away from them but providing an opportunity to act towards their future and towards the waste crisis in general. So positive education and communication.
Paula: Lucy was really good at having lots of meetings with our principal Karen Money.
Andrew: Paula started this but Lucy was central to the success of this. Paula delivered it staff. It wouldn’t have worked without Lucy.
Paula: If it was just the two of us (teachers) trying to create this change, it wouldn’t have flown. We really needed the students.
Andrew: Lucy has been amazing. Also because Lucy is a student, the dynamics and Karen, the principal, keeps talking about ‘students at the centre’, she has made it her mantra and she has to live to to it. Therefore, if students want something to happen at the school, and if students are motivated then our principal has gotten behind it.
Teenage years can be pretty tricky, how did you get the students on board?
Lucy: Something that’s really important to our school is that we’ve had a sustainable culture, that people want to do the right thing. When you want to have a conversation about this, there’s been no-one that has ever disagreed with the premise ‘we need to reduce waste’. The only concerns that we’ve found is the way that we’re doing it. So although they might be thinking ‘oh but this might happen’, they don’t disagree with WHY we’re doing it, which makes it quite an easy sell. They agree with the premise, the want to see it happen as well. It’s just making sure we consider everyone in the process to make this a reality. Again, it comes down to the positivity. The person who arranged the Paris climate agreement said she ‘injected optimism into the system’. I think we relate to that with this project as well, we wanted to make sure it was a really positive transition. By saying to students ‘this is a really great opportunity, get into your community, talk to each other.’ By showing that they can actually do something, even in terms of social media like that. If you do something environmental these days, it’s like ‘ohh look at the good person doing good’. So even the cooler groups, I’m not part of them, got into it. That one person goes forth, forth and forth. By having some key confident individuals who are happy to get involved. It was fantastic to see that wave of change happen over time.
What have been some highlights from the student environment team?
Lucy: It was fantastic to see the one-on-one changes. For instance, we’ve had people like my friend who used to cover her apple in glad wrap because she was like ‘I eat the skin too’ so everyday she would do that and everyday I would say ‘you know there’s no need to, there’s so many great alternatives’ and she would be like ‘no’ but then suddenly with this new change, it was easier for to not bring the glad wrap to school so she stopped doing it. Ever since that, she’s changed her attitude slowly and slowly. Also it was funny when people started using the solar cones because people kicked the flaps open because they didn’t want to touch it with their hands but now you see students just come up, open it and it’s part of everyday life. We’re composting so much more than we’ve ever before because it’s the easy alternative. We live in such a convenience lifestyle structure, that making the environmental option more convenient meant supporting our students on that part. Before this happen, some was talking about it in their psych class and suddenly people were comparing their lunchbox to see who had the least amount of waste in it. That type of conversation never would have happened, unless we made this change and this stance.
Andrew: Lunches were healthier after it all happened too.
Paula: That was a big positive thing, students are bringing healthier looking food. You still get students buying high sugar food and bringing it from home. It’s difficult to change that but we need to stay strong with our message. That making things from scratch are better for your health, better for the planet and better for your wallet.
Lucy: This plan made sure that it’s good for your health, the planet and just in general. It’s a fantastic environmental stand point but has also supported students in many other facets. I’m vegan, that’s my lifestyle, and so I was already trying to make more conscious efforts but now I notice my lunch box is so much, literally, greener than ever. So it’s just that transition happening slowly. So all the people that think ‘I’m not at the top of my game, I know I can do more’ but can really push themselves more like that.
How about humour? How did you use the power of humour in your campaign?
Paula: You’re the most hilarious one here, Andrew.
ZWV: Yes, tell us about ‘Orlando Ploom’ the ostrich [see photo].
Andrew: Haha yes. It definitely breaks the tension by using humour. It’s been really important because it does stress people out and it pushes people out of their comfort zone and they feel forced to change their habit. So I feel it’s been really important to the success and the amount of success we’ve had.
Paula: Not only the ostrich but covering the bins with funny little sayings on them like ‘damn it Janet, save the planet’. I wrote a little jingle as well, we called it the National Parks Scheme Jingle and we play that on the screens sometimes. Little things like that to make it not so oppressive or top down. Humour works.
Lucy: It also opens people up, it connects people through laughing and smiling and it brings joy into it. So if you can relate to them on that level, laughing. It’s something that hasn’t been just for this campaign but the Environment Team has been using for years, to keep things lighthearted, so people know we’re supporting you and that we understand the situation. Humour’s the fantastic entry point into it
Paula: Something else that we’ve done is link it to the climate change as well because we’re trying to highlight the connections between those two things to our students. So many of our students have gone on the schools 4 climate strike, so if you’re going to take time off school to support this cause, then by definition not to be a hippocrite you should also support the cause of not bringing waste into school because the two things are inextricably linked. So we’re trying to sell that message to our students and staff as well.
What have been some the challenges so far and how have you overcome some of them?
Paula: One of our challenges at the moment is that our solar cones are filling up and we’ve got some organic bins that we’re using which are processed off-site. That’s one of the issues we’re facing, so we’ve applied for funding to help us get a food waste dehydrator which will really help. They cost about $38,000 so we’ve applied for a grant for $20,000 so that’s one that we’re working through. We also have hirers that use the school because we’ve got to provide bins for them.
Andrew: We see that as a short term problem and communication problem, or opportunity, because as we talk to the hirers more, the school as a community is a hub not just for our school students but also the basketballers, netballers and karate people etc. And really, as we’ve had chats with them, there is this culture where they expect…and part of the agreement is we need to provide them with water which makes sense, but also a vending machine which seems odd – do sport and get your sugary drinks. But hopefully we can remind them, just because you’re here to do netball on a Thursday night that you don’t need to change your consumption habits and go and buy a bottle of Powerade. Why don’t you just bring a bottle from home. That’s probably the next step in our journey, to branch out. Once we’re more comfortable with the practices we’ve engrained for our 9 to 3:30 community then branch out to our after hour people too.
Paula: We’d really love Melbourne Girls’ College to become a sustainability hub, that’s our big picture ideal. Not only a place that people can recycle things with batteries, toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes but also food waste. So if we get this dehydrator for, like Andrew said, our 9 to 3:30 but beyond. Wouldn’t it be amazing? If Richmond community saw us as the sustainability hub? It’s be wonderful.
We were going to ask you about community involvement, is there anything else you want to add around harnessing community support?
Andrew: Before the National Parks Scheme, we have a connection with a local community garden that has chickens. Our students feed the chickens once a week. We had attempted to give the community garden our paper towel waste but the experiment didn’t work because we actually produced too far too much. It’s another learning and another opportunity. So we’ve actually put into next year’s budget, to upgrade from paper towels to really high efficient Dyson air blade hand dryers from all our research into it.
Paula: So hopefully we won’t have the paper waste from the toilets because we’ve still got bins in the bathrooms so they’ll go, as will all the paper. So the girls will just need to dry their hands with the dryer next year.
Lucy: Everything that happened here is such an opportunity. Even with that example, we find a way, we find another way so every time we find something like this, we make sure we address it and make sure that something happens to enhance ourselves in the future. One of the things with the media attention is that we had a whole swell of incorrect information – we were called a private school, select-entry, lots and lots of things that was not quite right. We were called ‘urchins’, I loved that one, it was one of the comments from the [United] States about school buses, we don’t even have school buses, but in the comment they wrote ‘those urchins will just throw their trash out of the school bus’. We’re in Melbourne, Australia but thank you nice try, please read the original article.
Paula: Hilarious! Go back to source.
Lucy: Exactly! Go back to the original source. A lot of the issues that people already had ingrained about the plan initially, when I first had a conversation with people, I don’t tell them that I’ve been heavily involved with it, and I just see the question that goes through their head ‘but what happens to this? And what happens to this?’. So I tell them ‘so this happens and this happens’ then ‘Ha! I got you’. So instead of ‘I’m so proud of this that we’re doing’, they don’t get a chance to ask their questions so that’s why I like doing it in this order. A lot of people originally, when Ms Mac first introduced the idea, I was like ‘I don’t know…how would that work? What would I do with my family?’ Because I’m still sorting my recycling at home because mum refuses to get a recycling bin at home but I can recycle it at school though. But actually I can’t really recycle it because we’re having all these issues with recycling so this happens and this happens. Then logic comes upon you – that’s a fantastic idea! We should totally do it! People often come to me and say ‘oh I don’t know how that works’ and I can say ‘I know, I was in the exact same position as you but I’ve come around and I know you can come around too’. It’s that kind of evolution of the plan, the movement of a ‘waste-free MGC’. I really love that slogan. We’re going to get there, even if it takes us 6 months, a year, we’re going to get there. And I’m really excited for that!
Do you have any tips or tricks for other schools and places trying to do something like this?
Andrew: Have a thick skin, a really thick skin.
Paula: Yeah and my advice would be ‘don’t let perfect be the the enemy of good’. Have a go at it, it’s not going to be perfect. You’re going to have to troubleshoot and put out the spot fires as you go. We’re still putting our spot fires here and there but we haven’t let that stop us from having a go, reaching our goal of sending out a positive message to our school community and the broader community about the problem of plastic pollution in this world. We’re staying true to that, we’re holding our own on it. That’s what I’d say to those the nay-sayers.
Andrew: Surround yourself with the team.
Paula: Absolutely and you’ve got to get your students involved. That’s an absolute key.
Lucy: It’s the same from the students, find yourself some teacher allies. It’s just so incredible, every party involved will know something that you don’t know and that’s how it works and it gets better, and better and better. Even if they have a different aspect or attitude to you, it doesn’t matter, it broadens your plan in general and that enhances it. You just couldn’t do it without it.
Andrew: Make sure your groups are inclusive and open. And that you encourage…and I’m not sure if we’ve achieve this yet, but it’s always my intent…is to have a broad church of people where you don’t necessarily need to have experts in the group. I think community groups are far more effective, where you have a group of people feel that their ideas are welcome. That’s where you get your mad ideas like Paula had with her National Parks Scheme for waste. Those little quirky touches that make or break your project. I always think that about Pedal Cinema. We had all these parents who didn’t want to join the sustainability team because they felt like they had nothing to add but the person who actually came up with the idea was a neighbour from across the street who joined because she was into gardening. She said ‘hey guys, why don’t you have a movie night with these bikes’ and it snowballed from there.
Lucy: How cool is that?! Also one last little piece, surround it with positivity. Make sure it’s a positive thing. Often, not that we did it, is that punishment such as you brought the wrong thing to school, creates a negative attitude which polarises people with different views and creates a big mess. So positivity! Also we’re hoping to create resources about how we did this, which hopefully we can share with people, about lessons that we learnt.
Paula: Some advice I would have for schools is take out a certain number of bins at a time, not go cold turkey but come off the landfill drugs slowly. Ween themselves off it, maybe taking the bins out of the classroom and leaving the ones in the school grounds first. Doing it that way might be a possibility. Another thing that we haven’t mentioned were all the incentives we’ve given the students. We collected names of all the students with waste free lunches and that goes into a spreadsheet. We pick out about six names every week and those students can come claim a prize. Students are well aware that’s going on, those names go up on the tv so we made everyone aware. So we tell everyone that’s what we’re doing, we make sure we do it and follow through with it.
Andrew: And lots of jars.
Paula: Oh yes, lots of jars for pencil shavings and they go into the solar cones.
We love how you see the challenges as ‘opportunities’ to solve. For the future, what do you envision for a ‘waste-free MGC’?
Andrew: Waste-free MGC broadly but focusing on zero waste to landfill and embracing the idea that the school as a sustainability hub where the community can bring their different-to-recycle items like batteries and that sort of thing. So obviously prioritise avoiding, using the modern waste hierarchy where you avoid most primarily then you reuse it etc. I’d still like to have, we’ve hidden a few of the bins as we paused and stopped emphasising those recycling systems for a little while because we had to troubleshoot that there weren’t too many places for students to hide their waste.
Paula: And we had to keep the message consistent too. This is what’s happening. If you have too many nuances it makes it too complicated.
Lucy: The ideal from my perspective would be the education side of why we’ve done this is entrenched into MGC and it’s a principle and value that we hold deeply within sustainability and a message that will continue on with students from the start of year 7 to their whole life, even after high school. So what they learn here can keep on going. Part of that is that it’ll be completely normal. Something that I’m really excited about next year is when we don’t have those bins in the bathroom because we’ll have those new upgrades, the new year 7s won’t even know anything different from what we have now. I’m envisioning this cohort of completely new year 7s are year 12 and suddenly every single person has never experienced anything else different…and that’s the norm. A sustainability, waste-free lifestyle that will continue on with them even when they leave MGC. So waste-free MGC forever!
Paula: And beyond!
So keep it manageable, positive, fun, build a diverse and open team, stick to it and see challenges as opportunities. Thank you so much for sharing Lisa, Paula and Andrew. We look forward to following and supporting the next phase of NPS!
Congratulations to Lucy who will be stepping into the role of 2020 Environment Captain! Thank you to Lucy and Paula for your inspiring and empowering talk at the Zero Waste Festival. We shared our three key take home messages from that talk. Keep striving for your vision of a ‘waste-free MGC’ and beyond!
MGC is an all girls government secondary school situated on the banks of the Birrarung (Yarra River) in Richmond. MGC made the news with their new initiative National Parks Scheme to go bin free, except for compost bins which go into their worm farm and compost system. The idea sprang from teacher Paula with the ethos of National Parks tackling rubbish by removing their bins and implementing the same idea at school. The students of The MGC Environment Team have since run with the idea utilising humour, creativity, conversations and rewards to unleash their plan! They received media attention from a wide variety of sources including The Age, Guardian, Independent (UK) and ABC Radio. MGC’s principal Karen Money is incredibly supportive of this ‘action research project’ conducted by ‘brave circuit breakers’. You can follow their journey on instagram – MGC Environment Team @mgcenviro and Paula @zerowasteschoolsaustralia.
Zero Waste Victoria attended MGC’s Human Powered Pedal Cinema and Nationals Parks Scheme Community Night this year and are proud supporters of the MGC National Parks Scheme.