The trash cans on Main Street contain many things.
“A lot of newspapers, some in Asian languages, and beer bottles,” said Abigail Landers, an El Segundo High School senior and co-president of its Grades of Green club. “I couldn’t tell what language.”
“I saw a couple diapers in there,” said Stephanie Nehme, another ESHS senior, and treasurer of its Key Club.
“Hazardous waste,” said Megan Hansford, an ESHS junior and founder of the newly established Grow to Give club, referring to the diapers. “Biohazard. And a lot of uneaten sandwiches, all in zip lock bags. Homemade sandwiches.”
“Thank God we had gloves,” said sophomore Sunny Sun, another ESHS Key Club member.
“The liquid part was really gross,” Landers said. “Like milk mixed with salsa mixed with lettuce… and a lot of money. Random quarters. Just a lot of carelessly thrown away stuff.”
And that is exactly the point the teenagers are making: For the sake of the planet and our future on it, we all need to be more careful what we throw away.
On Dec. 13, the three clubs conducted a “waste audit,” collecting the trash from 15 trash bins in high foot traffic areas – five city bins on Main Street, Center Street, and Grand Avenue, and ten at the high school itself – then sifted through the contents to determine how much was actual waste. They discovered a shocking amount of waste; or, more to the point, waste that didn’t need to be wasted.
Of the 41 pounds of trash collected from city cans, all but six pounds – 83 percent – could have been recycled or composted. Of the 87 pounds of trash collected at the high school, 60 pounds could have been sorted as recyclable, compostable, or liquid; the ten cans of trash contained only three cans of real waste.
Nehme said that the experience was deeply instructive.
“Actually reading and learning in a classroom is not as inspiring and influencing as going and actually doing something about it,” she said. “I think doing the waste audit was a very mind-boggling experience in how we are educated – or actually, a lack thereof – of an environmental education. And how we are treating our environment as a trash bag. We need to treat it as our home, which it is.”
“I thought the waste audit was definitely a call to action,” Landers said. “I thought there were things we could do to recycle more, but I was never quite able to fathom, before we did the audit, exactly how much we are throwing in the trash that we don’t need to be.”
Landers said that there are broader lessons from the waste audit, applicable society-wide. In particular, she said, roughly half of all trash that ends up in landfills is food waste.
“That is quite tragic, when you think about it, because that could turn back into soil, but it’s just mummified there, because nothing is decomposing in a landfill,” she said. “It’s like we are taking out of the system, but we are not putting anything back in. So going with the metaphor of the environment being our home, it’s like you just keep throwing out your furniture, but you never replace it with anything, and pretty soon you just have an empty house.”
“I was honestly really surprised how much food is wasted,” said Sarah Alhasson, a junior who is a Key Club member. “America is known as the fattest nation, so if we educate about how much food we buy and don’t use, that is a big deal towards the [larger] end.”
The waste audit grew out of a grant from NRG obtained by Grades of Green, a non-profit that started a few years ago in Manhattan Beach and now has 100,000 kids in 162 schools nationwide working to reduce environmental waste of all kinds. Landers and her co-president, Rachel Williams, brought Grades of Green to El Segundo High at the beginning of this school year. At the very same time, Hansford was launching her own organization, Grow to Give, with a focus on teaching elementary kids how to garden and compost. The girls realized they had essentially the same mission and joined forces, then enlisted Key Club International – the oldest and largest high school service club, part of the Kiwanis – to help provide manpower.
“We just wanted to get as many people involved as possible,” Landers said.
The coalition of student groups intends to keep working together. They have launched a campaign called “Think Before You Toss” in order to share the results of their waste audit, which includes a display at the El Segundo Public Library and a report about the audit they gave before the City Council on Jan. 15. They are working with Republic Services, the city’s waste management company who also assisted with the trash audit, to install four compost bins at El Segundo High.
Both Grow to Give and Grades of Green also work directly with elementary students in hopes of influencing a younger generation to live in a more environmentally sustainable manner.
“Maybe our generation can’t fix things,” Williams said. “But it’s really fun to educate the young, the children in elementary school, because they can grow up and make even more of a difference in their generation.”
Many look towards teenagers, a generation that has grown up perhaps with more of a green consciousness than any previous generation, as the world’s greatest hope. Hansford argued that fundamental change occurs across generations.
“I just think it’s kind of like a chain,” she said. “We need to be better than our parents, and our kids need to be better than us. We need to keep teaching them… You see movements throughout America’s history which are really infused with the idea of the environment and saving it, but then you lose it, and it turns into something else because people assume that they did enough. The point is it’s never enough: The next generation always has to do better in order to better the environment.”
The toughest audience, all agreed, is their peers. In a high school of more than 1,200 students, only a few dozen are active in any environmental groups. And the trash cans at the high school – with a lot of Capri Sun drinks, chip bags, and uneaten food– are evidence of the less-than-green approach of most teenagers.
“I think it’s hard for a lot of people to see the personal impacts for themselves,” Landers said. “The environment – people don’t quite connect that to meaning home. And that is particularly an issue when you are a teenager and you are just thinking, ‘I’ve got go to school, got to get into college’ and you are nose-to-the-grindstone on this achievement thing. You don’t really have time to think about what might be changeable about the system and might be good to change.”
There is also something else that is difficult for teenagers who are conscious of environmental issues: the burden of knowing the potential peril of the planet. As one of the students said, regarding the school’s Advance Placement Environmental Science class, “It’s depressing… Like, humans are bad, bad news.”
“It’s tough when you are a teenager to have to look out in the world and realize that if you don’t make a difference then this world might not be here for your children, this world might not be here for your children’s children,” Hansford said. “It’s really hard, as a teenager, to accept that, when you are trying deal with grades, and getting into college, and your parents, and all the other things that are clouding up your life. I think a lot of teenagers thus ignore it and put it on the backburner and say, ‘Well, we can worry about that a different day. I have finals today.’ I think all of us here have accepted that we have to make a change or no one else will. It’s a tough thing to accept, and take responsibility for. You just kind of have to hope you can change other people’s minds too and you can help make a difference, even in the slightest way.”
Landers said that her hope is that she and teenagers like her can impact the adult world they are about to enter.
“Basically, what makes us able to make changes is we still have a lot of that exuberance and passion of childhood for some of these things,” she said. “You know, when you are a kid and you are just running through the woods you are in love with life and in love the environment? But then, as you get older and maybe you work in the city, you kind of lose sight of that. I think teenagers can take a lot of what they are learning and, emerging into adult world, try to bring some of that love of the environment back for adults. But at the same time there is this feeling, ‘Well, we are only kids, what can we do?’”
“I think it’s really part of the human condition. We all procrastinate,” she added. “…What teenagers do in pop culture is they kind of drive new fads. So just like they can say, ‘Bieber is awesome!’ they can also encourage a fresh look into environmentalism. And I think that is really where our power lies.”