“It’s okay! We can try the next one,” UWCSEA teacher Diana Yacou comforted her student. The latter continued to the next stall, mustered up courage and held up a bunch of banana leaves as she engaged the vendors, hoping to get them to try using the naturally biodegradable leaves as an alternative to disposable plastic utensils.
The student is a member of the student recycling initiative, GreenFingers (GF), in the East Campus of UWCSEA. She was one of the GF team members promoting green practices at the school’s Family Festival held on 19 March 2016.
An annual event, the Family Festival attracted thousands of visitors; the cheerful calls of the vendors rang out and mingled with the laughter and music outside the school canteen. There was a steady stream of people of various races and nationalities, and with a wide variety of snacks from different cultures available, the affair resembled a “United Nations gathering”.
So, how could such a major activity be transformed into a green event? This was a question that the school had pondered long and hard over.
Learning About Recycling
The East Campus of UWCSEA is situated in Tampines and has a modern campus and international student body. Sustainability is one of its management principles, and hence, it actively promotes environmentalism. Within the premises, there are recycling bins and a composting zone, while its staff often tote their own reusable utensils along with them.
In 2014, the school contacted Tzu Chi with the hope of getting its students to promote recycling on their own initiative. Since then, Tzu Chi volunteers have been visiting the school at fixed intervals, communicating with GF members via mobile communication platforms and giving pointers to their teacher-in-charge, Diana Yacou.
Over the past two years, the volunteers have visited the school no less than 10 times and guided the students in the planning of various green promotion activities on campus. During their discussions, both parties realized that Tzu Chi’s experience in organizing its environmentally-friendly annual Chinese New Year charity bazaar could be applied to the Family Festival. GF members then observed the way in which the 2015 and 2016 bazaars were organized, learning how to sort recyclables in the process. In addition, they had organized group visits to the Tzu Chi Eco-Awareness Centre and community recycling points, even visiting the recycling companies which collaborate with Tzu Chi.
Mindful Planning, Mindful Choices
In 2016, the members of GF dropped to just 8 from more than 20 previously. However, morale remained high as those that remained had true passion for the cause. In January, GF ensured that Styrofoam products would not be used at the Family Festival held in March. They also set up a utensil washing area and numerous sorting stations for recyclables at the venue of the event.
Tzu Chi’s senior recycling team leader Suzan Tan has been helping GF for a few years, sharing with the latter how Tzu Chi implements green practices at its annual charity bazaar. She had the GF members speak with the vendors of the Family Festival, to ask them not to use Styrofoam containers so as to cut down on waste and pollution.
Before the Festival started, GF also sent out many emails encouraging parents of students to bring their own utensils, reminding everyone about the importance of going green during the event. GF even bought 200 sets of reusable utensils to be lent to the participants of future activities held on campus.
In preparation for the event, Suzan held two discussions with the students and helped in cleaning the newly bought utensils. When the students pointed out that it was wasteful that every spoon came wrapped up in plastic packaging, she replied in the affirmative and took the opportunity to say that if we as consumers could change our choices, the manufacturers would likewise change their model of packaging.
Giving Play to Creative Ideas
To make the Family Festival an environmentally-friendly event, GF came up with two creative ideas—banana leaves to replace disposable plates, and a mobile recycling bin. Suzan was full of praise and said that the used leaves could be made into compost.
The students had taken Suzan’s advice that recycling should be made convenient for others, and two mobile recycling bins were the result. As they pushed the bins among the crowd, they picked up used banana leaves and other recyclables, and also helped with clearing rubbish from the tables.
Barbara Ureta from Chile has been a GF member for close to four months, and she had brought a friend to the Festival to help her. Together they pushed the recycling bin and made their rounds cheerily. Barbara said that she did not feel embarrassed at all while doing the work, and that she even enjoyed it. To her, it was a commitment that had to be carried out seriously.
She noticed that the majority of visitors would chip in to help her clear the tables, and as she was washing the leaves, some parents came by and enquired about the reason behind the use of banana leaves. She felt that it was a good thing as it was indicative that people were beginning to take notice of their efforts.
Yalanda Chung, a parent, was one of the few who had brought her own utensils and took the initiative to wash them herself at the designated washing zone. She said it felt good that she did not waste resources (by using disposable utensils); her child too, had brought along a set.
A Combined Effort from Students, Teachers, and Volunteers
Manpower was tight with just eight students taking care of recycling at such a large-scale event, but Diana was on hand to encourage her students and to provide an extra pair of hands. Tzu Chi volunteers, too, gave guidance from the sidelines. A group of them was stationed at the entrance to promote the concept of recycling and the use of reusable utensils in place of disposable ones.
Arriving one hour prior to the event, the volunteers were able to suggest some last-minute changes with their experience. The utensil washing area was moved to a more prominent spot, its visibility serving as a public education tool.
Annie Chen, a student from China who was on duty at the washing station, ensured that all recyclables were cleaned. She remarked that being personally involved made her more aware of the importance of recycling. The high school principal at the East Campus of UWCSEA, Nick Alchin, also helped to wash the recyclables after the event. In addition, Tzu Chi was approached by the head of the Parents’ Association from the UWCSEA’s Dover branch, Marialine Verdickt, who hoped that the organization could also share its experience with students from Dover at the latter’s own Family Festival.
Though there was room for further improvement that day, everyone was satisfied with the outcome of their efforts. Suzan was especially pleased to see how the students readily accepted any suggestions she made. Concluding, GF’s teacher-in-charge, Diana, said that her students had confidence in Tzu Chi’s recommendations as they had seen the hard work that the volunteers put in. “Thank you very much for being here, for helping us,” she said with gratitude.