Sustainability has always been in the BSA’s DNA, although it hasn’t always been called that. Since the times of Baden-Powell, Scouts have strived to follow a strict code of outdoor ethics. The father of Scouting himself reminded Scouts to leave nothing behind at camp except thanks to the landowner who let them stay there. This “leave nothing but footprints” ethic evolved into the Outdoor Code, which the BSA devised in 1948, and the principles of Leave No Trace, which was adopted in the 1990s.

When Scouts go into the outdoors, they usually try to live by the Outdoor Code:

As an American, I will do my best to—
Be clean in my outdoor manners.
Be careful with fire.
Be considerate in the outdoors.
Be conservation-minded.

Although most Scouters usually abide by this Code while in the outdoors, many often forget the last line: “Be conservation-minded.” In the second century of the BSA, the organization has moved toward an embrace of sustainability. For example, the Summit Bechtel Reserve was built as a showplace for sustainable development, the Sustainability merit badge was introduced, and multiple Sustainability Summits have been held in West Virginia (in 2012, 2013, and 2014) and at National Geographic headquarters in Washington (in 2015).

Be Conservation-Minded

Four-bin waste station at Troops 3, 5 and 9’s pancake breakfast courtesy of Bryan on Scouting

It is easy to feel like we are leaving no trace while we are in the outdoors – pack your trash out, follow local guidelines, don’t disturb the wildlife, etc. However, this principle should follow us into the rest of our lives as well. Are we doing our best to always be conservation-minded? Are we striving to be stewards of our planet all the time, not just in the outdoors? 

Here are a few ways Scouts in Wilmette, Ill., Troops 3, 5 and 9, decided to practice sustainability. Your Unit can also make these simple changes to leave a smaller footprint on the earth all the time, especially during Scouting events! 

  • Replace styrofoam plates with certified compostable plates, 100 percent paper plates (the Chinet brand is ideal, the troop says) or reusable china plates for the facilities that had a commercial dishwasher.
  • Swap plastic utensils with either reusable or compostable utensils.
  • Get rid of plastic or styrofoam cups in favor of reusable, 100 percent paper or compostable cups.
  • Eliminate one-time-use plastic tablecloths.
  • Replace small, individual coffee creamers (not recycled) with half-gallons of creamer to be recycled.
  • Set up a four-bin waste station in one or two locations. The stations: compost, recycling, garbage and liquids.
  • Recruit one to two Scouts to man each station to ensure that guests disposed of items properly.
  • Ask the youth leaders to summarize the sustainability efforts in a checklist that can be used for each subsequent year as leadership turns over.

Merit Badge Opportunities

Not only can Scouts feel good about creating long-term changes that benefit the Earth, they can also reap the rewards of practicing sustainability through merit badges. 

There are two applicable merit badges for Scouts who are interested in sustainability and conservation – Sustainability and Environmental Science. 

The Sustainability Merit Badge

The Sustainability merit badge is an option for the Eagle Scout rank, although Scouts can choose to earn the Environmental Science badge instead. Sustainability has always been a part of the Boy Scouts of America, even if it hasn’t always been called such. With the rolling out of the Sustainability merit badge at the first-ever Jamboree at the Summit Bechtel Reserve in 2013, the BSA reaffirmed its commitment to leading the way in a world where resources are finite and our footprint continues to grow.

While earning the Environmental Science merit badge, Scouts will get a taste of what it is like to be an environmental scientist, making observations and carrying out experiments to investigate the natural world.

These two badges are also options for the National Outdoor Badge for Conservation, which Scouts can earn if they want to further their knowledge of conservation. 

Tread Lightly

Perhaps best of all, Scouts who begin to be sustainability-minded are learning what it means to tread lightly on the earth. And that brings us to this quote from Aldo Leopold, the father of the land ethic: “The hope of the future lies not in curbing the influence of human occupancy—it is already too late for that—but in creating a better understanding of the extent of that influence and a new ethic for its governance.”

For more than a century, the BSA has been an acknowledged leader in outdoor education and environmental stewardship. We have taught generations of Scouts to take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints. For decades, the Outdoor Code has stood alongside the Scout Oath and Scout Law as a guide for interacting with the world around us.

Let us continue to be a standard for sustainability and practice Leave No trace in every aspect of our Scouting adventures. 

For more information, visit the BSA’s sustainability website, Green to Deep Green.

If you or your unit have had success with sustainability, let us know in the comments below! 

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