Conference Environmental Protection without borders

Johannes Ebert with participants of the competition „Umwelt macht Schule“
Johannes Ebert with participants of the competition „Umwelt macht Schule“ | © Martin Christopher Welker

Can you make natural soap yourself? Do you have tips for saving energy at home? Ingenuity is needed when it comes to environmental protection! The Goethe-Institut therefore promoted creative project ideas with its school competition Umwelt macht Schule in the Eastern European/Central Asia region. The winners were presented at the Second International Environmental Youth Conference at the HKW in Berlin.

By Patrick Wildermann

At first, her campaign met with scepticism. “Lots of people asked, “What’s the point of sorting your rubbish?’” reports Diana Igolnikova, a pupil in the tenth grade at the Goethe Gymnasium in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. “Sadly, where we live it’s common for people to simply burn their rubbish!” That makes the “Plastic Bottles and Toilet Paper” initiative that Igolnikova and two of her classmates thought up together with their German teacher all the more important. At their own school and on the street they are advocating recycling and increased ecological awareness.

“Plastic Bottles and Toilet Paper” is just one of fifteen winning projects from the competition Umwelt macht Schule that the Goethe-Institut in the Eastern Europe/Central Asia region announced in September 2015 for pupils in grades 7 to 11. It met with considerable response: 223 schools in Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Ukraine took part. A jury of renowned experts from German and Russian universities chose the winning projects. The ideas of the creative young activists were now presented at the Second International Environmental Conference at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt on 4 and 5 April.

Change in sight?

“Young people play a crucial role in communicating environmental issues to adults,” Johannes Ebert, secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut, stressed in his opening speech at the conference. The father of three knows it from experience. After ten years of working in countries like Egypt and Russia where rubbish sorting is unknown, his children were the first to motivate him to treat their household waste with care. The project now is demonstrating to the Eastern European pupils, Ebert said, “that environmental protection knows no borders and solutions can only be found together with others.”

The projects are presented on posters. The projects are presented on posters. | © Martin Christopher Welker In many post-Soviet states, the visiting pupils reported, pollution has reached alarming dimensions, whether fine-dust pollution in the air, soil or water contamination. At the same time, the socio-political climate does not show any signs of changing. So, all hopes lie on the young generation’s shoulders.

Experiments with cleaning agents

It’s a very creative generation at that. Irina Zhukova, Marina Belozerova and Anastasia Dron demonstrate a simple yet convincing experiment at the HKW to illustrate the urgency of their project “Water and Plastic Cleaner.” The pupils from Chelyabinsk in Russia set a paper clip afloat in a water glass. Then they add a little dishwashing liquid. The paper clip immediately sinks to the bottom of the glass.

“In our city, the problem of water pollution is quite acute,” explains Olga Bannikova, a German teacher at the girls’ school. “Chelyabinsk is an industrial city with more than a million inhabitants.” Wastewater there is drained into the many rivers and lakes in the city and its surroundings. It is all the more important that households not use all kinds of cleaning agents wastefully, according to Bannikova and her pupils. In the course of their project, they also found a recipe for natural soap.

Four pupils from the lyceum in Rivne, Ukraine have another focus for their work. Practical Tips for Saving Energy at Home is the name of a brochure they hand out to every visitor. It begins, explains Oksana Melnychuk, a tenth grader, with assumedly trivial things, for example putting your computer into sleep mode as often as possible and cleaning the vacuum cleaner filter regularly. “And if you shower for seven minutes a day instead of ten, you can save hundreds of litres of water every month.” If everyone would follow the tips, the effect would be huge. “It’s already working at our school,” says Melnychuk. “When we don’t need the lights, we don’t switch them on.”

Manifesto for the environment

These and other projects are intended to raise awareness for environmental protection and to show how everyone can help pave the way to sustainable and environmentally aware lives. “We are the little pieces the world is made of,” Oksana Melnychuk puts in a nutshell during a discussion with Johannes Ebert and the jury members Gundula Herwig and Wilhelm Linder. And the world can be changed for the positive. At the end of the conference all of the pupils write this down together in an Environmental Manifesto, which will hopefully be read by policymakers and academics.