Taking Action

Saving the planet one bottle at a time.

Word went out, responses came in and leaders gathered at Rutgers University to discuss global climate change. Delegates from across New Jersey listened to experts reveal the immediate and long-term impacts of the environmental crisis. They met with scientists, toured state-of-the-art laboratories, brainstormed initiatives and evaluated action plans to incorporate at local levels.

Who were these state representatives? Teenagers.

Piloted in 2009 and sponsored by the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Department of 4-H Youth Development, Science Engineering & Technology (SET) Program, Climate Change Teen Summit provides young people with the ability to deal with worldwide environmental concerns. The two-day program is offered at no charge, giving students and their teachers great access to high-quality resources and cutting-edge data to bring back to their communities. The first day focuses on education. The follow-up day, which takes place about six weeks later, gives students a forum to present their action plans.

On a misty day in March, Rachel Lyons, Morris County 4-H agent and co-chair of the conference, prepares final details for the 2010 summit while awaiting the arrival of five schools and a homeschooling group at Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. "Climate change is a big and important problem," she says. "So big, in fact, that young people are often overwhelmed by the size and scope of the issues at hand. They did not create this problem, but they will play a huge role in resolving it. Our organization realized we were in a unique position to merge our expertise in youth development with the knowledge of our university scientists. We give students the tools and the empowerment to take on climate change now, to make a positive impact in their own community by putting their knowledge into action."

And put it into action they do. Last year, Bergen County Academies (BCA) in Hackensack, New Jersey, a charter magnet school that has become a powerhouse in the area of education reform over the past 18 years, participated in the forum. Victoria Pero, advisor to the EarthKnights, the school environmental club, welcomed the chance to enlighten her students at a university level. They had a "wonderfully mind-bursting experience and came back to BCA full of ideas."

For their follow-up action plan, the students chose to concentrate on reducing waste. Focusing on plastic water bottles, they learned that it takes more water to make a plastic bottle than to fill it, and that only 23 percent of these bottles are recycled, meaning 38 billion wind up in landfills across the country every year. Once in landfills, it takes more than 700 years for water bottles to decompose. Recognizing the global water crisis and the impact on ecosystems, wildlife and human beings, the decision to CANtheBottles: Mission 2010 at BCA was born.

How do you convince a school of 1,000-plus students and teachers to eliminate water bottles? Communicating the staggering statistics was a start. However, realizing they needed to provide an alternative solution, the kids enlisted the help of its visual arts department. Student artists worked with EarthKnight members to design and customize BPA-free reusable aluminum bottles that could be sold.

It became clear that the school community did not want to use water fountains. They did not trust the water quality and thought the fountains were "gross." Subsequently, the EarthKnights applied for and received a grant from the Bergen County Utilities Authority. Water filters were purchased for the cafeteria sinks with funds from the grant and money from the BCA-Parent Partnership Organization.

To sustain the project beyond the campus, the EarthKnights continued their clean-water research, which led them to Dr. Robert Glennon, author of Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What to Do About It (Island Press). Glennon spoke at the school's Earth Day Fest and brought with him a crew from the award-winning Nickelodeon show Nick News. The exciting combination of creative information, collaboration and activism was captured on film and presented on national television in the special Your Thirsty World, which aired this past April.

The Climate Change Teen Summit was the springboard for Bergen County Academies to tackle a global concern at a local level. With support from Rutgers and the BCA community of administrators, faculty, custodial staff and students, the EarthKnights articulated their vision and had an immediate and long-lasting impact on the community. The shift in thinking that the students required for the project is, according to Tamara Pellien, Bergen County 4-H program associate, an important bridge between high school and college. "Students go from being taught about environmental concerns to actually developing solutions," says Pellien. "This is the same type of problem solving and reasoning they will need to use in college. Participation in 4-H activities, like the Climate Change Teen Summit, helps assure a positive collegiate experience."

Meanwhile, back at Bergen County Academies, the enormous volume of discarded paper is now a concern. No problem, the EarthKnights have a solution: CUTthePAPER: Mission 2011.