How can European youth projects be made more sustainable?
Year of production: 2021
In my previous article, I wrote about young people who had the courage to lead and participate in shaping the future they want. Young people who want to see a green transition and be involved in the processes that will make this happen. They are demanding that we respect the planetary boundaries, and lower the negative impact of our activities on the environment.
As a result of these pledges, the new Erasmus+ Programme Guide, which determines the conditions under which European Youth Programmes should be organised for being eligible for funding, as well as sets the priorities of the programme for its validity period, now tells us that we should “design projects in an eco-friendly way and incorporate green practices in all their facets”. This is great but, how do we do this in practice?
11 tips to make your project more sustainable
What follows is a collection of 11 tips distilled from my 10 years+ of experience organising EU youth projects in the most environmentally friendly manner possible:
The greenest travel is no travel. So actually, don’t travel at all, if for a certain project or type of event, there is an option which would not significantly compromise the quality of the outcome.
The next greenest way to travel is land travel. So avoid flying, if possible. In the info-packs of the projects I organise, I provide participants with ideas on how to get to the venue by bus, train and/or ship. If the participant is coming by plane, I make it compulsory to offset the associated emissions through Atmosfair. I encourage green travel by offering a price to the most sustainable traveller. I’ve had participants coming to northern Spain by bicycle all the way from Lithuania!
With the new Erasmus+ programme this has become easier, as green travel is now encouraged and extra funding is allocated for sustainable travel options. In the past, this extra economic burden had to be borne by either the participant or the organisation. I used to reimburse full travel costs to those participants travelling sustainably, even if they were sometimes going over the budget allocated for their travel by the programme.
I have not listed this “travel green” tip as number one by coincidence. Air travel is the biggest contributor to environmental degradation through climate change in a mobility project. So if we want to do only one thing to improve the environmental sustainability of our projects, you know what the first option must be. The second one is the food we eat.
Choose environmentally responsible food providers
Local, seasonal, organic and mainly vegetarian food should be provided in those events that include meals. I say “mainly” vegetarian, because in some specific cases it could be deemed acceptable to have an occasional meat option, provided that the meat comes from free range local animals involved in regenerative agriculture systems. If this type of meat is included, it is important to explain the reasons why. This often triggers very interesting discussions among participants, and helps them develop critical thinking (see point 6).
This type of food used to be a very expensive option that not every project budget could afford. Nowadays, there are more and more providers offering eco-friendly options, which has reduced prices significantly. This of course varies from country to country, and it could be the case that in your country it is not possible. If this is so, then at least go for a vegetarian option. It should be cheaper, and it’s more sustainable than conventional options that include meat.
Minimise consumables and merchandising, and choose eco-friendly options
You arrive to a training course and there is a notebook and pen waiting for you in your chair. Or a tote-bag, or a drinking bottle, or a t-shirt. Everything beautifully sporting the name and logo of the project and so on… But you probably already have tens of t-shirts back home, several drinking bottles, dozens of tote-bags and notebooks and hundreds of pens. Now that’s what I call waste.
If you are organising a project, ask participants to bring their own notebook and pen. This is even more convenient, as all the notebooks will be different and so no-one will mistake theirs for someone else’s. Also, some participants might prefer to take notes on their laptops, phones or tablets. If you really consider it useful for the visibility of the project that participants wear t-shirts with the logo, which can be the case if you are going to spend a lot of time interacting with external people, then ask them to bring their own plain light coloured t-shirt, and send them all for printing on the first day of the project. They should be ready within a couple of days. Alternatively, you could invest in a simple t-shirt printing set and have participants print them there themselves as part of the project activities.
Regarding consumables (paper, markers, post-its, etc.), choose those with an eco-label, and use them mindfully and with care (replace caps on markers after use, use both sides of paper…). When printing handouts, print in black and white, double sided, on eco-labelled paper, and using Eco-font, which is freely available online and saves ink from your printer. And tell participants about it! It’s all part of the educational experience.
Educate yourself on environmental topics
This is particularly relevant if you are a trainer/facilitator. You may choose to follow a formal degree or MSc on the matter, such as this one at Stockholm University (free for EU residents), or a free MOOC such as this one from Wageningen University.
There is also training for eco-trainers out there, such as the one I co-delivered for Youth and Environment Europe back in 2015. The Eco-trainer guide is a result of this training, which you, the reader, may find useful. Due to the increasing demand, more of such training is coming in the near future, so keep an eye out.
Include environmental education throughout the project curriculum
As the environment is a cross-cutting issue (it affects multiple areas), you can include environmental education elements in every single topic you tackle. Let’s do it!
For example, if your project is about migration, you can state that climate change is driving a lot of the current migration. Or if your project is about peace building, you can point out that the origin of many wars comes from conflicts related to the management of natural resources (Michael L. Ross, Cambridge University Press, 2004). This would also be a good moment to mention that everything is connected, and bring attention to the importance of cultivating systems thinking.
Encourage critical thinking and systems thinking
Critical thinking is a very important skill that helps us make well-informed decisions, protects us from believing fake news and helps us to detect greenwashing. It’s important to include activities in your project that encourage and train this kind of thinking. You can find some ideas here.
Systems thinking helps us to be aware of the fact that everything is connected, and that everything we do has a consequence. This is a fundamental aspect to be aware of when considering our impact on the systems of the Earth. Systems thinking is very complex, but can be brought to educational settings quite simply. You can find some ideas here.
Choose an eco-friendly venue
It may be difficult or even impossible to find a zero-impact venue, but there are better and worse ones. If available (and it’s a matter of searching well enough), choose a venue which sorts waste separately, uses renewable energy sources and eco-friendly cleaning products, and that is concerned about minimising its negative impact on the environment in general.
If all the venues that you find are notably unsustainable, or simply do not care about their impact on the environment, you may want to tell them that you would like to see a greener approach from their side. The more we demand this, the more likely it will be that they end up implementing at least some environmental measures, if only just to please their clients.
Encourage participants to behave in an eco-friendly manner
Saving water, turning lights off when not needed, using consumables mindfully… This will lower the negative environmental impact of the project and may create green habits which out-live the project.
Use the outdoors
Holding the sessions or activities outdoors, if the weather allows it, is a great way to save electricity, connect with the surroundings (if it’s a natural space even better, as the connection with nature will happen naturally) and think better, as more oxygen flows into our brains.
Maximise the impact of your project
We are travelling, consuming resources, utilising EU funds… we had better make sure that we reach the maximum number of young people who can benefit from our project. This is about managing our resources efficiently, which is one of the keys to sustainability.
Lead by example
No-one will believe your message if you are acting contrary to what you are saying. In the field of environmental sustainability, coherence is key. If you want to lead environmentally sound projects, it is important that you become as eco-friendly as possible yourself. Your actions will be seen and your messages and demands will be more respected and followed.
There is an increasing demand for greener practices in the development of projects within European Youth Programmes. Making your projects more respectful to the environment is not that difficult if you want to and know how to. Now you have some ideas of how to. Let’s put them into practice and live up to the expectations of young people.
For more ideas on how to green your projects, you can also check: