Growing Schools

Introduction

The Renewable World is a Department for Education (DfE) project, developed as part of the Growing Schools programme. It is managed by Farming and Countryside Education (FACE). The project has been prompted by the rapidly developing interest in, and understanding of, renewable materials. In particular, their value in helping to develop a more sustainable future is being recognised. The Renewable World game is underpinned by sound science, coordinated by the National Non-Food Crops Centre (NNFCC), and drawing on a panel of experts in this cutting-edge technology.

In this area of the website you can find out more about the Renewable World project, and tap into a wide range of background information to help you make the most of the resources it contains. The information is arranged in five sections; clicking on the heading will take you straight to that section.


Renewables: what and why?

Many of the resources on our planet are finite and will eventually run out. Before that, they are likely to become scarce and expensive. We need to develop novel, innovative materials that are more sustainable, and can be produced from renewable sources.

Renewable resources are capable of being used indefinitely; they will not run out. Renewable energy is produced using the natural power of the sun, wind, or moving water. Unlike coal, gas or petroleum oil, all of which are finite, renewable energy sources will always be there. Renewable materials are obtained from living organisms, and can be produced indefinitely. Usually they come from specially grown crop plants, capturing the sun's energy through the process of photosynthesis. Alternatively they may come from farm animals, be made by bacteria, or sourced from an environment such as a forest, provided it is managed in a sustainable way.

As well as providing us with renewable materials, plant activity also captures carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. This means that using renewables can reduce our carbon footprint as they produce lower greenhouse gas emissions overall than products made from fossil fuels.

Renewables do have some disadvantages too. They require land to grow on, some of which could alternatively be used to grow food, or left untouched for wildlife. Renewable materials still need energy to process and may be expensive to manufacture. Nevertheless, renewables provide a sustainable way to find the raw materials, fuel and energy we will need to meet our future needs.

Of course, we already use hundreds of plant-derived materials - wood, cotton, indigo, rayon and rubber to name but a few. However in the last 100 years we have become increasingly dependent on cheap and abundant petroleum oil not only as a fuel, but also as a source of raw materials. It has contributed to a huge range of products including plastics, dyes, medicines, textiles and lubricants, and has greatly improved our quality of life. We can manufacture these products from plants, but need to find ways to do so in more economic and energy-efficient ways.

Work has already started, and some novel uses for renewable materials are already well developed, with crop plants being used in new ways. For example hemp is being used to produce paper, and insulation materials, oilseed rape for biodiesel, herbs for pharmaceuticals and aromatic oils and maize for adhesives and plastics. As well as being renewable, many plant-based products can be made in biodegradable or non-biodegradable forms. This means they can be tailored to appropriate waste-disposal methods, helping to reduce pollution.

Activities

The website features five main activities, accessible from the home page. Each activity is self-contained and they are largely self-explanatory, but there is more background information, and suggestions for using activities 2, 4 and 5 below. The activities are:

  1. Recognising Renewables
  2. Renewables Past, Present and Future
  3. Careers in Renewables
  4. Choice and Renewables
  5. Debating Renewables

Renewables Past, Present and Future (Activity 2)

For a short introduction to playing the Renewables Past, Present and Future game, click on the ACTIVITIES tab and select Renewables Past, Present and Future. The information below provides more explanation of the thinking behind the Build the Future phase of the game

Choosing renewables
Consumer acceptance is critical in bringing forward products that have a better environmental profile than those already on the market. The game takes players through a consumer decision-making process, in developing their future house, looking at and evaluating a range of products made from renewable materials. The scorecards used in the game use the following categories to reflect the different costs associated with the manufacture of each product:

Financial cost
The ability of industry to produce products economically using sustainable technologies is key for a sound commercial enterprise - as is the availability of good, affordable products that we all want to buy. In 100 years time we calculated that products would be relatively more expensive than today as there will be more demand and fewer fossil resources. We want players to consider the trade off between paying more for a product with a good environmental profile or less for one with poorer environmental credentials.

Land use
A period of climatic conditions resulting in poor global harvests has coincided with an increasing population seeking a more diverse diet. Thus the demand for food from the land is greater than ever. But we also need land to produce sustainable, non-food crops. Currently, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that 1-2% of agricultural land worldwide is used for renewable fuels and materials. Our understanding of the optimal use of land to produce renewable materials is improving. There are also developments in technology that allow the use of an ever-broader range of carbon-rich feedstocks as the raw material to produce renewable materials. These feedstocks include crops, landfill waste, animal waste or straw. Farmers play a critical role in stewardship of the countryside, and providing them with new markets to sell their crops supports them, and helps maintain rural economies.

Chemicals used in production
Chemicals are an essential part of modern agriculture, although non-food crops generally have lower fertiliser and pesticide requirements than food crops. Chemical reagents, solvents and processing aids are also needed during manufacture of products, even if they are using renewable materials. Other influences at play include regulations to reduce human or environmental contamination by certain hazardous chemicals used in agriculture and manufacturing industries. In some instances, these hazards are significantly reduced when using plant-derived, rather than petrochemical-based, materials.

Energy use in production
The carbon footprint of a renewable product over its entire life cycle is affected by the amount of energy used to produce it. Developments now aim to use renewable energy, and to make production systems as energy efficient as possible.

Waste
There are a number of end-of-life options for any product - re-use, recycle, repair or replace (i.e. throw it in the dustbin for landfill). The end-of-life scenario can be designed into products based on consumer behaviour, such as whether something should be compostable (biodegradable) or long lived. We took account of the typical end-of-life scenarios for each product so that they can form part of the discussions and work around the game.

Convenience and style
A challenge to the designers of the future will be working with renewable materials with new and different properties. How products function, affect our health, look, feel, take on colours, fit into storage and so on is important to us. For the products of the future to succeed they must retain good design standards, and the designers, inventors, scientists and marketing professionals of the future will need to support them.

It's not just what you buy, it's how you use it
Making environmentally conscious consumer choices in this game is important - the phrase 'buy well, buy once' comes to mind. However, the checkout is not the end of our responsibilities, because the way products are used can also have a huge influence on our carbon footprint. Again the benefits of good design are clear - if we love to use something, and it is energy efficient, we will prefer it for longer. Being more sustainable involves changes and improvements at many levels, and this is reflected in the balancing act needed to complete the game successfully.

Choice and renewables (Activity 4)

This activity takes three everyday objects: a carrier bag, a t-shirt and a car, and asks students to consider what factors they might take into account when choosing which to buy. They are give nine properties for each object, and asked to rank them on a diamond framework. This ensures that they choose a 'most important' and 'least important', but are allowed to cluster some properties in the centre. You could run this activity very quickly, using the countdown clock, before any discussion takes place, then discuss the rankings produced and possibly re-run the exercise. Another approach would be to carry out the exercise role playing different groups of people. For carrier bags for example you could consider the differing views of the supermarkets, shoppers on a limited budget or teenagers concerned about the future.

Debating renewables (Activity 5)

Many renewable materials are new, and so are the technologies that produce them. Some aspects of renewables, such as using land to produce them, can be controversial. Other issues such as their long-term contribution to sustainability, or reducing carbon emissions, can only be estimated. All of this makes them a good issue for debate.

This activity poses three statements. Students can be asked to give an initial opinion, then research and discuss the issues, then vote again. Voting as a class usually means that everyone's opinion becomes public, which may affect the way individuals vote. Using the voting board avoids this because it allows for a secret ballot. Everyone can go to the whiteboard and vote, but the results are only displayed when requested at the end of the voting process. A second vote can be taken later, and the results shown in a different colour.

The three debating statements are listed below. Click on the statement for some ideas on structuring the debate, points to consider, and sources of further information.

Plastic food wrapping should be banned
This debate is simplified by concentrating on a single issue. It can be made more interesting by not only considering whether plastic food wrapping should be replaced with something more sustainable, but also how you persuade designers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers to make the switch.

Questions you could consider include:

  • How many different foods are wrapped in plastic?
  • Why is plastic so widely used?
  • Why has it become such a problem?
  • What are the alternatives to oil-derived plastic food wrappings and why are they better?
  • How can everyone involved in the food chain be persuaded to switch from oil-derived plastics to something more sustainable?

Further information:

The benefits of renewable materials outweigh the drawbacks
It's important that students understand that there can be problems associated with the production, use and disposal of renewable materials, and how to balance these against the advantages.

Points for discussion:

  • Sustainability of production
  • Effect on CO2 emissions
  • Methods of disposal
  • Job creation
  • Land use
  • Properties, and acceptability to manufacturers and consumers
  • Cost
  • Effect on wildlife of switching from annual to perennial crops

Further information:

Renewable materials can make a significant contribution to our future energy needs.

Currently, renewables contribute about two percent of our energy needs. The government target is to derive 15 per cent of our energy from renewables by 2020. This includes all types of renewable energy, not just renewable materials.

Questions to consider:

  • How to we use energy in the home?
  • How/where else do we use energy?
  • What energy sources are used at present, and in what proportions?
  • What renewable materials (biofuels and biomass) can be used to produce energy? (This can include waste products, not just crops grown specifically for the purpose)
  • How realistic is it to increase the amount of biofuels and biomass we produce?

Further information:

Energy generation in 2008, by percentage share

Coal - 16.9
Petroleum - 33.2
Natural gas - 41.4
Nuclear electricity - 5.3
Hydro electricity - 0.5
Electricity imports - 0.4
Renewables and waste - 2.4

 

Renewable materials can provide a wealth of topics for many areas of the curriculum. Some suggested links are listed below, and others are included in the lesson plans.

Citizenship KS3

Links to Key Concepts

Links to Curriculum Opportunities

Science KS3

Links to Key Concepts

Links to Curriculum Opportunities

Links to Range and Content areas

History KS3

Links to Key Concepts

Links to Curriculum Opportunities

Cross-curriculum dimensions: Global dimension and sustainable development

Links to Curriculum Opportunities

Project partners

Contributing teachers

Teachers, and other education professionals, have kindly contributed teaching resources to this project, as listed below:

Practical Maths

Steve Humble, National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) North East, steve.humble@ncetm.org.uk, drmaths@hotmail.co.uk

Science Outdoors

Steve Tilling, Director of Communications at Field Studies Council

Sustainable Geography

Martin Crabbe, Glebe School, Kent www.sustainablegeography.com

Textiles Technology

Fiona Kilby, AST for Design and Technology

 

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