In March Paige Dedrick, Caroline Finn and Donata Lorenzo, student at Nichols School, an Eco-School in Buffalo, New York, participated in the Plastics Are Forever International Youth Summit in Long Beach, California. The symposium, sponsored by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, served as a forum for student groups to fully develop plans to fight the plastic epidemic at school and in their communities. Because plastics cannot be absorbed by the earth they never disappear, but instead break down into little pieces that attract toxic materials and pollute our environment and food chain. Recently Paige reflected on her experience at the symposium and how it influenced the creation of the Nichols School project Plasti-Gone, a project that ties in well with Eco-Schools USA’s consumption and waste pathway. When I boarded the plane for Long Beach, I had a mental picture of what would comprise a “plastics symposium”. I expected to see pictures of albatrosses dead from plastic consumption and turtles mangled by plastic rings. There definitely were a few of those, but they are the very real result of our actions, and perhaps we should see those images to fully appreciate what we are fighting against, but they can be unpleasant and alienating. What I had not expected was to be greeted by a quintessential California surfer dude who had literally convinced thousands of investors to alter one small corner of the world. I had not expected to be told that being an environmental superhero should be energizing and satisfying.
“Do this work only if you can love it,” pronounced keynote speaker Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, Research Associate at California Academy of Sciences and founder/co-director of Ocean Revolution. It was a common theme throughout the weekend. I never imagined that people whose work is so important could so easily laugh at their own shortcomings. J. Nichols, who is easily among the most inspirational speakers I have ever heard, told us horrifying nightmare-stories about his early days of public speaking. Later, when our group was called upon to present our plan to the symposium, we could relate to his recollections of heavy blushing and sweating palms. We quickly learned that the first order of business if you hope to make a positive change in the world is to conquer stage fright.
I knew by the end of the first speech that my expectations of a doom and gloom conference were the antithesis of the seminar I was attending. Instead of dispirited environmentalists, exhausted from preaching the same message, the Plastics Are Forever (PAF) Youth Summit was chock-full of plastic-related-jokes (funnier than you might imagine), found plastic collections, and optimistic, animated compatriots. No one was lecturing the 100 students about how we were ruining the planet. No one was telling us that our earth was beyond repair. I expected to leave feeling just a little more desperate and prematurely haggard. I have never been so happy to be wrong before. I left PAF feeling completely capable and enthusiastic.Sometimes, the high school dynamic can be disadvantageous for someone interested in sustainability. Remembering that re-usable water bottle is not always easy, and recycling the one you had to buy is not always convenient; for a community of busy and academically engaged students, convenience and ease take priority. At times I have found it discouraging that my peers and I are not always capable of accomplishing all that we should in the ‘green’ department. Nichols School’s sponsorship of our attendance at PAF forced me to realize how important this work is. Sure, trigonometry and French conjugations absolutely should be mastered, but I recognized that the duty of stewardship is just as vital. I know that I express the gratitude of all three of us for this incredible opportunity to learn from, as Caroline would put it, “important people [who] are saving the world.” We accept the implicit challenge, and we will endeavor to spread our passion throughout our student body. We were given an enormous privilege and we plan to respond with accountability.
We are responsible for our planet because we live here and because we admire it. I think that sometimes we accept arguments of ease as valid because we forget how beautiful and generous the world is. “Live like you love the world, because you do,” was just one more brilliant phrase from J. Nichols. The PAF summit reinforced our camaraderie with the earth and with each other—the message heard over and over again was that friendship and understanding is the only way to combat this plastic plague. Emphasis was justly placed on the power of each person in the room to make a vast difference with just a little personal change. Saving the world is not as massive a proposition as we allow ourselves to think. With a little commitment and a lot of love it is practically already achievable.
Plasti-Gone is a student run initiative aimed at eliminating disposable plastic on school campuses. It connects schools in the Great Lakes region in a fight against disposable plastics. Each participating school signs the Plasti-Gone Pledge, and then takes steps outlined in the pledge to achieve a plastic free campus. There are three levels of achievement (albatross, sea turtle, and seal) that a school can set as their goal.
To learn more about the Plasti-Gone initiative visit http://www.plastigone.org/.
“My hands should never touch the recycling bins,” says Pamela Galus, the science specialist at Lothrop Science and Technology Magnet School in Omaha, Nebraska. At this bronze-level Eco-School, Galus strives to make sure students take the lead in every aspect of their school greening initiative. For the work to be sustainable, she explains, the adults can’t be the ones who run the show. “There shouldn’t be anyone who’s irreplaceable,” she says. Leading the charge can be a burnout role, and besides, she and her fellow teachers value the many teaching opportunities that come from involving students in every step of the process.
The goal is for teachers to collaborate and share the work, and for students to take ownership of the program wherever possible, with older kids passing the torch to younger ones as they progress through the grade levels at this early childhood to 4th grade school.
A student-led approach is one of the key aspects of the Eco-Schools program, and Lothrop provides an excellent model of how this can work. The school started its greening efforts with waste reduction. They began with a waste audit: During science class, students donned masks and gloves and spread out the contents of the trash cans to assess what could be diverted from the waste stream. Now, three students are on paper patrol each week. They have 15 minutes daily to collect recycling from classrooms around the school and then return to their own class. All the teachers keep an eye out to ensure that the students are on task as they haul the recycling bins to the custodians.
In the cafeteria, waste reduction requires a number of steps, from sorting recyclable containers and plasticware to collecting food waste for composting. As students finish their meals, they progress down a line, putting each item into the correct bin. Galus noted that on one day when the bins weren’t in place, the students were at a loss—they couldn’t fathom simply dumping an entire tray into the trash can. Already, the school has cut cafeteria waste from 20 bags per day to just 2, reducing the number of trash pickups and saving the school $1000. They still hope to find an alternative to their non-recyclable foam trays. And, while some of their compost currently goes to a local community garden’s vermicomposting system, they are experimenting with vermicomposting at school and, in partnership with a nearby high school, striving to find a large-scale solution that they can implement on school grounds. According to Galus, “It’s a valuable way for the kids to experiment with solving a real-world problem.”
The school also collects batteries, electronics, and eyeglasses for recycling. They saved juice boxes for a local commercial garden, which used them as planters for a sunflower maze. In the waste audit, they found that crayons were frequently thrown away, and devised several creative ways to reuse them. First, they fashioned the broken pieces into a large, colorful mosaic that spells out RECYCLE. Now they are finding ways to melt the pieces and form them into new shapes for the younger students. They also made a connection with an organization that works in Madagascar and saved crayons to send to the students there.
They’re now working to incorporate energy and water conservation into their program. Again, students take responsibility for making it happen. In each class, a student “electrician” checks to be sure lights and electronics are turned off when not in use. A “plumber” keeps an eye on water usage. Meanwhile, a recycling monitor watches to be sure materials make it into the right bin.
Because the school has a science focus, all the students do science fair projects each year and are encouraged to use the scientific process in many aspects of their academic work. Through observing and tracking behavior, students learned that 1) the distance between the recycling and the trash bins affects recycling rates, and 2) if someone is standing at the bins, the amount of material that gets recycled increases. More student experiments are always in progress in the school’s greenhouse, where they also grow vegetable starts for their outdoor classroom garden.
Connecting Lothrop students with kids in other places around the world is another goal of the program. The school has a distance learning lab which was used to conduct an “Environmental Summit” with three schools in Canada. Students have email penpals in Madagascar, India, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. Many of the Lothrop students haven’t been outside of Omaha, so this has been an eye-opening experience for them. Galus says they hope to use the learning lab for more real-time meet-ups, but different time zones and limited access to technology in other parts of the world make that challenging. However, next year they will be mentoring a school in Louisiana that is just getting started with a recycling program, and this will be another way to connect to students in a different place and to cultivate their leadership skills.
What does all this mean for the Lothrop students? Not only are they learning new skills and attitudes at school, they are also taking their experiences home to their families. Many have started recycling at home, a noteworthy achievement in a city where only about half the residents participate in free curbside recycling. Students also take home vegetable plants from the school’s greenhouse to start container gardens, a positive step toward healthier eating and a connection with nature in their urban environment. There’s no doubt that these projects are just the beginning for these young leaders!
To learn more about Lothrop’s Eco-Schools work, visit Mrs. Galus’ webpage. You can also contact her at Pamela.Galus@ops.org if you’d like to compare notes about an established or new program—a terrific way to share valuable experience!
Armagh, Pennsylvania is a rural school district in the heart of coal country. For many in the community, alternative energy and other environmental initiatives are tied to fears of family members losing their livelihood. So launching an Eco-Schools program requires a delicate touch.
Last year, students from the school’s environmental studies class proposed a “Take Back Earth Day” conference. After discussion with the administration and school board, a decision was made to start with something smaller. So the students took a lighter approach. They organized a fashion show.The “Trashin’ Fashion Show” garnered 83 entries in categories including school spirit, formal wear, informal wear, and accessories. All of the green garb was made from recycled items. Students fashioned skirts from old CDs, vests from decks of cards, dresses from newspapers, and purses from potato chip bags. According to teacher Bob Penrose, the ideas were incredibly creative.The grand prize winners took home a $200 prize. And all of the winning entries were displayed at the Department of Education in Harrisburg for the month of April.
But the purpose was much bigger than the prizes. Students were learning the value of reusing materials and conserving resources for the future. "We have so many kids excited now about what they can do, realizing that they can do little things to make a change," said Penrose.
And they’ve made one big change already. This year, when students again proposed the conference to the school board, they got a resounding yes. They plan to invite students from over 50 different schools in the region, highlight the progress United has made in greening its facilities and programs, and then create a declaration to send to state leaders expressing the participants’ demand for environmental leadership. And the conference will conclude with an even bigger and better version of the “Trashin’ Fashion Show.”
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