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What it takes to change a lightbulb

It is a complicated business to green a college as Simon Midgley finds out from a sustainable development officer

"If I were asking you to buy a light bulb," Joy Woods said, "you might think about how much it is going to cost and how bright it is, but rarely about anything else.

"If I were asking you to buy a bulb bearing in mind environmental considerations, you would probably buy an energy-efficient one.

"But if I were asking you to buy a bulb bearing in mind social, ethical, environmental and economic issues, you would then have to think about who made the bulb, the ethical stance of the company, whether the bulb is energy-efficient, which shop you are buying it from, how much it costs and what the packaging is like."

Ms Woods is sustainable development officer in St Helens college, Merseyside. She is one of just a handful of enthusiastic pioneers working to introduce eco-friendly practices into colleges and the curriculum. In future, however, that is likely to change.

Last September, the Government produced an action plan for sustainable development. This requires the higher education funding council and the Learning and Skills Council to develop strategies to ensure learners are taught about the importance of creating a sustainable society and also to ensure that their buildings and campuses are operated to the highest environmental standards.

At St Helens Joy Woods plays a pivotal role in a Learning and Skills Development Agency-funded project to make the college more environmentally-friendly. She illuminates light-bulb issues for students and promotes green initiatives across the college, from estates management to the curriculum.

She has been keen to make its water and energy use more efficient and to save fuel on travel. Paper, mobile phones and oils are recycled and St Helens is running a trial project to recycle CDs and printer cartridges.

Waterless urinals, reduced-flow taps and water-saving devices in cisterns have all been introduced, as have timer controls to switch lights off and on.

To encourage fuel-saving, the college has developed a car-sharing scheme and lockable cycle storage units have been introduced to encourage bike use. People using their cycles for business trips receive mileage payments.

Free bus passes are given to students and staff who relinquish their car-park passes.

The second phase of the project is to green the curriculum. Ms Woods has written learning materials about climate change and recycling which have been tested online with plumbing students.

Extra curriculum enrichment activities include visits which encourage students to think about corporate social responsibility, conservation, organic fair trade and environmental awareness.

Meanwhile, in East Yorkshire, Sheri-Leigh Miles is sustainability officer at Bishop Burton, a land-based college. Among her more unusual challenges are a composting project and educating farmers to grow peas in a sustainable way.

She is also trying to encourage sustainable practices throughout the college's estates - its farm, plant nursery and equine centre. She wants to introduce reforms into the college curriculum.

The Learning and Skills Council is now committed to developing a strategy for integrating sustainable development into the post-16 sector. It has appointed an advisory group and aims to announce its strategy this autumn.

Judith Cohen, regional director of the LSDA in Yorkshire and Humberside, says the strategy will help, but success will ultimately depend on money and if the inspectors are told to check up on a college's eco-friendliness.

"That," she says, "is what will make things happen."

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