To make the world a more sustainable place in the future, its citizens must adopt a sustainable mindset today. That’s the philosophy behind The Nature Conservancy, a global organisation that has been working to protect nature since 1951. Built around the idea that we should view the preservation of nature as an end in itself, and not just as a way to preserve natural resources for humanity, the Conservancy focuses on four main areas: tackling climate change, protecting land and water, providing food and water sustainably, and building healthier cities.
Importantly, the Conservancy is a science-based organisation that believes the world’s problems can be solved by the scientific process. “Armed with science, we can find the hope needed to overcome even the greatest challenges and build a stronger future,” says Hugh Possingham, the Conservancy’s chief scientist.
The organisation says its work in Hong Kong focuses on “nature and its impact on the quality of life for the territory’s primarily urban population – developing and growing support for the environment through our education programme”.
Its Nature Works Hong Kong programme aims to give students an understanding of environmental and conservation issues and a grounding in the science that applies to these issues, and provide leadership training so that students will know how to effect change now and later in life when they start their careers. The idea is to nurture future green leaders who will become “champions of change” in their communities.
“This programme is an incubator for student-driven conservation projects that bring tangible impact to school campuses across Hong Kong,” says Lulu Zhou, conservation strategy director of The Nature Conservancy Hong Kong.
The programme provides a framework for students to build the capacity for communication and collaboration, while developing professional skills like project management and stakeholder engagement, in the service of creating successful real-world projects that make a difference in their community.
The programme was born out of the belief that a project-based learning approach to sustainability and conservation education could boost student capacity, while also delivering substantial impact at school campuses across Hong Kong and China. The Conservancy applies what it calls an “act-learn” model that encourages students to solve environmental issues in their schools.
The programme, which runs from March to December this year, includes a competition that aims to instil a scientific approach to sustainability in young people, while equipping them with the leadership skills to put their discoveries into practice. The students, representing their schools, first learn about conservation in workshops led by scientists and teachers. Then they form groups and come up with their own sustainable projects to be piloted on campus. This is followed by a pitch day when the teams present their different projects to the judges, who pick three winners.
The programme is open to teams of three to five students aged between 13 and 17. Twelve schools entered teams into the competition this year, with Sha Tin College, Renaissance College and The Island School coming out on top. Sha Tin College and the Island School both focused on the issue of food waste, while Renaissance College addressed air pollution.
The judges were impressed by all the projects, not just the winners, says Zhou. “We’ve been running this programme for six years, and every year I’m truly blown away by what the students are able to achieve. They come into the programme with a passion, and by focusing that passion, students have the ability to drive significant changes in their community.”
Their enthusiasm is infectious, she notes: “Once they realise they have that capacity, it inspires the students around them, as well as our team.”
Zhou says the main achievement of the programme is showing participants that they can be a force for change. “The biggest change is their perception of their own ability – and their perception of the ability of young people, and individuals everywhere – to lead meaningful change.”
Plugging students into that network and equipping them with new personal andprofessional skills empowers the students with the tools and connections to make a difference. “Seeing the results of their work, and that of their peers, further inspires them to want to do more. That drives a virtuous cycle of impact on the individual participants, and their communities,” says the Nature Conservancy team.
The Conservancy has an ongoing relationship with the participants and schools, and follows up on the projects after the competition to continue giving advice. They would visit students at school, to help those continuing with their projects to troubleshoot and improve their efforts. The outstanding teams selected by judges on pitch day received access to seed funding to scale up their projects.
Food waste was a popular issue for the teams to address. Students from Sha Tin College discovered that their school generated 25kg of waste every day, and set themselves a target of reducing the amount of that waste that ends up in a landfill by 20 per cent. The team went under the name Food Crusaders, and collected 100kg of waste in the pilot phase. The waste produced at the school later shrunk to 11kg each day, a 43 per cent decrease. The students organised a composting scheme on the premises to achieve their objective.
“This project will greatly benefit our school and the wider community,” says participating student Solomon Lam. “As our canteen created a large amount of food waste, a strain was placed on the garbage collection infrastructure and the fragile road systems. With the development of our composting project, we will greatly reduce the amount of waste.”
The project had a positive effect on another school initiative. “The gardening programme relies on government compost which has to be delivered by volunteers,” he says. “When our composting programme matures, we will be able to provide all the compost ourselves. With our gardening club now growing a variety of crops including tomatoes, potatoes and more, we could soon see Chartwells [the school cafeteria] use our school’s produce in meals.”
In the long term, the team hope to replicate their solutions across the entire ESF spectrum. Investment in electric composters is also planned for their higher efficiency and lower labour intensity. “Our current programme is based on student volunteers, but this is unsustainable and time consuming. If all goes to plan, we hope to raise funds and get electric composters, not only for our school, but other ESF and local schools.”
The Island School also focused on food waste. The team audited 15 categories of waste at the school, including plastics and metal cans, and discovered that food waste was the worst offender – the school was producing 56kg of food waste each day. The team formulated a strategy they dubbed “New Bin”, which was a combination of composting and a menu change. The latter entailed negotiating with the school’s caterer – there is no on-site canteen – to change the menu according to student preferences, a move that would lead to less discarded food.
“We looked at the root of the issue – our catering – and decided to change things there for the better. After surveying the students and teachers on the type of food they preferred, we brought this data to our caterer and discussed how we could alter the menu to reduce our food waste,” says the Island School team. “We then focused on adding a food collection process during break and lunchtimes, where students could separate their food waste. This brought us into our final stage of the project, which was composting. With students separating their waste properly, we could purchase a 24-hour composting machine from the funding we were given to turn the food waste into compost.”
The Island School team, called Island Tyfoods, noted that the leadership aspect of the course proved valuable. “We learned about the importance of integrity – that your behaviour should match your values. It doesn’t matter what you value, if your actions don’t support them.”
“Strong leaders have to match their values with their behaviour. They match what they say with what they do. We were taught to work smarter, not harder, and to look for different and quicker methods to achieve our goals, because there is more than one road to success. We learned to never stop pushing, and not to give up, even when people around you say that it’s impossible.”
Long-term plans include introducing the scheme to Island School’s other location in Sha Tin Wai, and extending the scheme to the local community. Team members regularly monitor the project’s progress, and are in charge of producing useful fertilisers for the school’s gardening club. Fertilisers are also potentially available to the close community as a means of establishing a communication bridge between the school body and the locals.
Renaissance College decided to approach the issue of air quality on campus. The team collected data from 37 locations around the school for a month. Most of the results accorded with World Health Organisation standards, but the team found four rooms with dangerous pm2.5 particles, which are linked to heart and lung disease. To address the problem, the team deployed four different types of plants – spider plants, snake plants, golden pothos and Chinese evergreen – to remove indoor pollutants like formaldehyde, xylene and benzene from the air.
According to the team, the inspiration behind this is personal, as a few of their family members have contracted lung cancer – often caused by air pollution. “They aren’t smokers, and have likely got this disease through many factors, with air pollution one of the most prevalent. Having gone through the experience of witnessing family members struggle through the disease, we understand the need to help others in the same circumstances, so we want to do something about it,” the team, who goes by The Pure Air Project, says.
“We decided to focus on air pollution because it has insidious health effects that affect many. This affects us acutely, because of where we live. It is an issue that is often covered by the international media, and China’s air pollution record is one of the worst in the world. Hong Kong is also getting worse.”
The team began with more ambitious plans. “We thought about installing an air-purifying tower in our school. They were hesitant to give us the price at first, but then they got back to us and said it would cost HK$8 million. It’s simultaneously funny and sad, because one of our group members was seriously discussing how many years it would take for our school debentures to cover the cost of the tower. They were producing numbers in the hundreds of thousands, and it was all a little dramatic. It’s quite funny in hindsight, though.”
The team plans to place plants in every classroom in the school’s secondary block. The team identified that the classrooms on the second and third floors were the most polluted, so they aimed to put plants in those first, before expanding to all six floors. The students hope to move into areas of energy conservation and have attended meetings with an environmental consultancy firm which partners with the school.
“We have come up with ideas such as occupancy sensors for our lights, and how we can manipulate our centralised air-conditioning system to minimise energy usage.” The team is also trying hard to get solar panels installed in the school.
All of the teams consider participation in the Nature Works programme to have been a valuable experience. “Our team was able to meet so many other student leaders, and work with them to make Hong Kong more sustainable,” says the Renaissance College team. “We also had opportunities to meet people who were experts in their fields. We thought it was an incredibly unique experience as they gave insightful and detailed advice.”
The Island School team says: “We learned a tremendous amount of new skills throughout this course and it offered a great deal of help when assisting us during both the high and low points of our process.”