By Brandie Hanson, 18, North HS in Torrance (2009 graduate)
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Brandie says that we should help the environment for ourselves and for future generations.

My junior year I saw girls in the bathroom turn on all the faucets, wasting water, just for fun. After lunch I would walk through school and see the janitors picking the recyclables out of the trash cans, even though we have recycling bins all over campus. It made me wonder what were people thinking, were they even thinking at all?! The janitors have other things to do!

I felt that the students at my school needed to pay more attention to the environment. So on a whim at the end of junior year I applied for the new ecology position on student council. When I was chosen I was shocked and excited that I got the opportunity to start a new tradition, Ecology Week. My goal was to make more students care about the environment.

I had to start with myself. I’ve always cared about the environment. Growing up I read National Geographic. Seeing pictures of glaciers in Alaska and tropical rainforests made me want to learn about them. I dreamed of becoming a photographer for National Geographic, traveling the world and taking pictures of nature. My senior year, I learned more about the environment in AP environmental science.

Mr. Estabrook was one of my favorite teachers. He played songs like “The 3 R’s” (reduce, reuse, recycle) by Jack Johnson at the end of class. He wouldn’t point out the environmental message in the songs he would just wait to see who was actually listening. But what made him different was that we actually did the things we learned about in our book. We had our own composting bins. Compost is a mixture of leftover food, grass and leaves that is used as a fertilizer.

My favorite project was our mini ecosystems, which we made out of layers of two-liter plastic bottles stacked vertically. Each bottle had a different habitat and they were all connected. The bottom bottle was an aquarium with a fish, the next bottle with holes in the bottom had radish plants growing and the top bottle had compost in it. It taught us the circle of life, meaning that when you mess with one part of nature, you are harming many parts of an ecosystem. Seeing an ecosystem this way showed me how pesticides from a farm can reach a body of water even if I can’t see it directly.

I learned more about global warming too. Before enviro, I thought global warming was the world getting warmer. But it’s more than that. It’s dramatic changes in climate all over the world, such as increased rainfall in some regions and severe droughts in others. What causes global warming? Doing things that burn fossil fuels, including driving cars and burning coal in power plants to produce energy, releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The greenhouse gases trap heat from the sun in our atmosphere, raising temperatures. We are already experiencing global warming. Because of rising temperatures, the snow pack in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, which supplies California with much of its water, is melting at a faster rate. This is leaving us with less water for drinking and farms, which could lead to decreased food production. Global warming will lead to rising sea levels as glaciers melt, and the increased spread of disease because disease-carrying insects thrive in warm, wet areas.

I had fun biking more and driving less

Learning about global warming was frustrating because I would still see the freeway packed during rush hour. I understand most people cannot give up driving but we learned about small things we can do like carpooling, cutting down on unnecessary trips and even using public transportation. If everyone were to cut back a little the result would be huge. I started carpooling more often with my friends and riding my bike more. It became a tradition to bike to my friend Britt’s house for crepes to save gas and to burn off the calories. And I don’t make unnecessary trips like going to the grocery store for one item. These changes have been easy to make.

Brandie (right) and Hazen Alloush displayed a month’s worth of recycling to show the school how much they prevented from going into landfills.
Photo courtesy of North High's student council

We learned that energy is wasted leaving lights, computers and televisions on when they’re not being used, washing clothes more often than needed, and leaving unused chargers plugged in.

Now I turn on the computer maybe once a week because I have Internet access on my phone, and unplug my chargers when I’m not using them. I make sure to wash my clothes only when they are really dirty. I turn off the lights when I leave a room. My parents are pretty good about conserving energy so it was easy for me to remember to turn off the lights because my dad always says things like, “Is anyone in your room?”

The class loved to learn about the environment because Mr. Estabrook was passionate about what he was teaching us. Every day I would walk into class and he would be eating fruits and vegetables from his garden. He would encourage us to grow our own fruits and vegetables to cut down on the gas used to transport produce from places such as South America to supermarkets. Plus, growing it yourself you know that no harmful pesticides were used and that water wasn’t wasted because farms often use the cheapest irrigation method, not the most water-friendly one. Pesticides that are used to make crops look pretty destroy aquatic ecosystems. For example, sea otters die when pesticide runoff increases kelp growth and they are not able to reach the sea floor to eat the clams that live there.

One week we had to collect all our trash and carry it around with us so we would feel the weight of the trash we created. We each had a plastic bag tied to our purse or backpack for our trash. Mr. Estabrook would pick on my friend who sat next to me, calling him a “Waste Wizard,” because he had so much trash. Three bags were tied to his backpack and they would swing every which way when he turned around to talk to somebody. And it wasn’t so fun having his smelly trash on my desk all week. To cut back on my trash I didn’t eat single-serving bags of chips or candy bars. I didn’t have much trash after a week but many of my friends had Ziploc bags for sandwiches and chips. After that week I began eating my snacks out of Tupperware because it can be used over and over.

I was disappointed more people didn’t recycle

I thought that recycling was something everyone does but when I would notice students throwing bottles away and learned the statistics, I was proud of my parents for raising me to recycle. Americans use 2.5 million plastic bottles each hour and most of those bottles are thrown away. That plastic bottle will not begin to decompose for 700 years.

Around January I started planning for Ecology Week, which was April 20-24. I started brainstorming ideas one night when I couldn’t sleep. I came up with a plan for a homeroom slideshow that would have environmental facts and statistics and a lights-out day. I even thought of a no-meat day but that wasn’t practical because companies like Chick-fil-A and Subway have contracts with our school to serve lunch every day. I started writing letters asking for donations for raffle prizes. I wrote about 20 and got about five donations, including a bike, Whole Foods gift cards and Hansen’s sodas.

Brandie with her AP enviro teacher, Mr. Estabrook, who inspired her to become more passionate about helping the environment.

Photo by Emily Navarro, 18, Environmental Charter HS (Lawndale)

Mr. Estabrook wanted to help me with Ecology Week so he had each student make a slide with a fact. I chose the best ones, like you can recycle Hershey’s Kisses wrappers. A gross one was, “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down,” meaning it is not necessary to flush the toilet every time you use it.

Before Ecology Week I told all the teachers of the upcoming events because I needed them to help get the students fired up. I wrote a letter with the schedule and directions for the homeroom activity. Most teachers seemed excited about the idea of a new tradition at our school, and brought in recyclables as well.

All month leading up to Ecology Week we held a recycling drive. Students would bring in five recyclables for one ticket, without a limit, that would be entered in a raffle for a variety of gift certificates.

The slideshow I put together was shown during homeroom the Wednesday before Ecology Week. Students won raffle tickets for answering questions their homeroom teachers asked about the slideshow after watching it. After homeroom, students were coming to student council constantly turning in their raffle tickets they had won.

We wanted to start Ecology Week with a bang. So a couple of us from council made a pyramid of recyclables in the middle of the quad early in the morning. It was made out of the 15,000 bottles and cans the school had collected throughout the month. Many students stopped to look at it. They asked if I had made it alone. Lights Out Day was easy because most of our classrooms have lots of windows to light the room. Many teachers decided to keep their lights off for much of the week.

We got everyone involved in Ecology Week

The Light Bulb Switch was Tuesday. We switched about 100 regular lights bulbs that students brought from home with donated compact fluorescent light bulbs, which are more energy efficient.

The Eco Fair was on Wednesday. Booths included a recycled jewelry booth where a girl sold bracelets made from old bandanas, a booth with a representative from our local trash collection center who had items to give away to promote recycling and reducing waste, and Mr. Estrabrook’s ecology club’s plants. I walked into fifth period and people had their own cucumber plants they bought for a dollar.

Thursday was No Paper Day and teachers made fewer copies and used fewer worksheets. The big raffle on Friday went really well because students had brought in about 20 garbage bags worth of recyclables throughout the month. There was a huge crowd in the middle of the quad at lunch with their tickets out as we read off the winning numbers. After every number someone in the crowd would scream, “Ohh, that’s me!”

Ecology Week went really well for its first time. I was tired but proud, knowing that I helped make a change no matter how small. After Ecology Week the janitors picked fewer bottles out of the trash cans. One of my close friends won the bike in the raffle and rode to school more often even though he has his own car.

All people need is knowledge about the environment and they will become more conscientious. I’ve been eating more natural and organically grown food. As Mr. Estabrook says, “Vote with your dollars,” meaning even if organic products are more expensive, the more people buy them the less people are buying of the other stuff and prices could eventually even out. The changes we each make add up. We can make a difference all together.

Things you can do to help the environment

• Don’t be wasteful. For example, most people grab a handful of ketchup packets when eating fast food. The unused packets usually get thrown away. Only take what you need.

• Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Recycling one ton (2,000 pounds) of paper
saves 17 trees and prevents 600 pounds of air pollution. Every three months, Americans throw away enough aluminum to rebuild every commercial airplane in the United States. Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to watch television for two hours, according to the EPA.

• Change your incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs. They are 4 to 6 times more efficient because they give off less heat.

• Use reusable grocery bags instead of plastic ones. Plastic bags end up in landfills and don’t decompose for more than 700 years.

If you liked this story, check out some of L.A. Youth’s other coverage of teens trying to help the environment …

Doing our part. Breanna, 17, got her family to help the environment by recycling. (October 2009)

It’s in our hands. Once Se, 16, learned about global warming, he realized that we all can do something about it. (September 2007)

Traveling green. Trying to be more environmentally friendly travelers, four L.A. Youth teen staff writers tried to go a week without using a car. How did they do? (September 2007)

Keepin’ it clean. L.A. Youth teen staffers joined spent a Saturday joining with hundreds of others to pick up trash from the beach. WITH PHOTO GALLERY. (September 2007)

Hot and bothered about global warming. Hae Jin, 15, says teens can take action to help stop global warming. (March – April 2005)

Other stories by this writer …

Eating right while eating out. After learning she had high cholesterol, Brandie, 17, made her diet healthier. (January – February 2009)

Applying to college without stressing out. Brandie, 18, knew that no matter where she got in, she’d get a good education. (May – June 2009)