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From making paper to saving the planet: Eco-education in an unlikely setting

An eco-education centre called Tree run by a paper-making company? At first it seems about as apt as an oil-drilling company sponsoring electric cars or a fast-food giant espousing veganism.

Worldwide consumption of paper soared during the 20th century and has been blamed for deforestation, acid rain and water pollution. In addition, discarded paper is thought to make up more than a third of US municipal solid waste – even paper recycling produces toxic sludge.

But Tullis Russell, a well-known paper-making company in Fife, Scotland, is educating children on the perils facing our planet. And it is actually in a very good position to do so. 

In 2009, the employee-owned company abandoned fossil fuels, building a biomass plant to supply all its steam and electricity needs and feed into the local grid. The same year, while celebrating its 200th anniversary, it joined community groups and the Keep Scotland Beautiful campaign to plan the £1 million Tree (Tullis Russell Environmental Education) Centre.

This now stands where the company’s social club and training centre once did. By reusing materials like wooden cladding from the old dance floor, CO2 emissions are 95 per cent lower than if conventional materials had been used.

Visiting school pupils see a biomass boiler, equipment for gathering rainwater, solar panels and straw bale insulation.

Educators from The Ecology Centre, a local charity, also walk pupils through an exploration of the world’s most troubling social, environmental and humanitarian challenges. In these sessions, pupils match countries with the catastrophic effects they will face if emissions continue rising, donning t-shirts to show different sources of greenhouse gases. One class member layers on 32 t-shirts to represent an overheating Earth.

They also power a TV screen and music system with their own movements and address the energy demands of an ever-increasing human population. Educators encourage pupils to see themselves as scientists of the future – what would they do?

Each visit finishes with the most emotive activity: pupils make policy decisions. Heated debates ensue over whether all pupils should wear second-hand uniforms, if travellers should be limited to one return flight a year, or if free public transport for all is economically viable.

“Never have I seen pupils so fired-up,” says Claire Reid, the Ecology Centre education manager. “They challenge each other: ‘Why is your right to foreign holidays or new uniforms more important than Africans’ rights to food and water?’ As real debates take place I think to myself: ‘This is what education should be about.’”

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