When we were young, it was easy to think that we’d have to wait until we’re older to make a difference since most of our role models were adults. As young environmental activist Ta’Kaiya Blaney said, “I always wanted to make a difference, but it was always along the lines of…when I grow up. It’s sad that it has to be this way but I realize I don’t have time to grow up before I want to make a change.”
It’s true – young students don’t need to wait until they’re older to make a difference. They can make real change now. Sometimes they just need to know it’s possible.
Here are 13 inspiring stories that show what’s possible when young environmentalists take action.
By the age of 16, Alex Lin had already influenced significant changes to reduce e-waste. After reading about e-waste in a Wall Street Journal article, he decided to take action.
Along with his community service team, Alex has overseen the recycling of 300,000 pounds of e-waste. They also successfully lobbied the Rhode Island state legislature to pass a bill in 2006 banning the dumping of e-waste. This bill paved the way for the producer responsibility bill, which passed in 2008, that puts more responsibility on electronic manufacturers.
The community service team’s work has gone global. They’ve helped establish similar teams in countries such as the Philippines, Mexico, and Kenya to reduce local e-waste.
In Houston, Texas, the East End serves some of the poorest students in the district and was known for being a “food desert.” Twenty local high school and college students have become “Green Ambassadors” since the program began three years ago. They have been trained and certified through Project Learning Tree’s early childhood and PreK-8 environmental outdoor education, and are among the first high schoolers to do so. These young leaders use their new knowledge and skills to transform their community.
Their goal is to provide more than 100,000 residents with fresh, natural foods. Their urban gardens will also be home to local wildlife and pollinators. They’re doing it by planting one fruit tree and one community garden at a time, linking their schools and neighborhoods to form a Houston East End Greenbelt.
In the fall of 2016, Furr High School won a $10 million grant through a new national contest sponsored by Lauren Powell Jobs to continue their work.
Growing up in the Curtis Bay neighborhood of Baltimore, many friends and family members of Destiny Watford suffered from asthma. She saw a link between the high rates of asthma and the air pollution from a local medical-waste incinerator, the coal pier, and several medical plants in the area.
When she was 17, a new solid-waste incinerator was scheduled to be built close to her high school. Destiny and a few other young people from her neighborhood pressured local officials to stop the project to prevent further air pollution from devastating their neighborhood. After three years of fighting, state regulators pulled the project’s permit in March 2016, halting the project.
Destiny’s work earned her the Goldman Environmental Prize for bringing attention to the consequences of environmental inequities. Now a college student, Destiny works for an organization called Free Your Voice and is working to reinstate air quality monitors in Curtis Bay.
The “Students for Sustainability” club at Port Townsend High School in Washington State has helped reforest two local habitats. After learning about the state of their local watersheds, the high school students wanted to help improve the habitat for wildlife and water quality. To plan their reforestation efforts, they partnered with the Jefferson Land Trust and the Northwest Watershed Institute.
The students served as crew leaders for the Northwest Watershed Institute’s Plant-a-Thon events. Students from kindergarten through 8th grade plant several thousand trees during the event. To date, they’ve planted over 7,000 trees!
Fourteen-year-old Ta’Kaiya Blaney from the Tla’amin First Nation in British Columbia has cared about the environment as long as she can remember. She’s been singing since the age of four, and her songs about the environment have already gone viral. She has given speeches around the world, including Rio+20, TUNZA UN children and youth conference, the ONECA conference, and TEDxSFU. This young activist and singer is showing the world that the voices of youth deserve to be heard.
When Cole Rasenberger was in second grade, he was assigned a homework project to write a letter to a local official on an environmental issue. While researching potential topics, he discovered the Dogwood Alliance’s website and learned that thousands of acres of North Carolina’s coastal forests are being destroyed daily, endangering local animals and plants.
Instead of just writing a letter, 8-year-old Cole wanted to take on the paper packaging industry. He partnered with Dogwood Alliance and organized his elementary school to sign postcards to ask McDonald’s to use recycled packaging. A few months and 2,500 handmade signed postcards later, McDonald’s decided to use more post-recyclable fiber, including 100% recycled fibers in their bags.
This win motivated Cole to do more, and he was ready to take on KFC. He partnered with seven schools, got the attention of media venues, and hand delivered over 6,000 postcards to KFC’s headquarters. It took several years before KFC agreed to use more recycled paper in its packaging, but Cole and the Dogwood Alliance didn’t give up.
Students from Ben Franklin High School in Baltimore, Md., are taking action to restore one of the more polluted areas of the city. In partnership with the Baltimore Aquarium and the Shores of Baltimore Land Trust, students are helping to transform Masonville Cove. This site was known for illegal industrial dumping and is now a model environmental education center and bird sanctuary on 54 acres of reclaimed wetlands.
Students planted 3,000 trees and bushes on the site, constructed a native wetland pond, raise and transplant bay grass, and “planted” oysters in underwater cages to help filter the water.
As a bird-lover, 11-year-old Olivia Bouler wanted to take action after seeing the effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. She partnered with the Audubon Society to sell over 500 paintings and sketches of bird species most affected by the spill. She raised over $200,000 for Gulf Coast relief efforts and released a book of her work to support Audubon’s conversation mission.
St. Michael School middle school students in Livermore, Ca., were eager to address the issue of waste on campus. After receiving a GreenWorks grant from Project Learning Tree, they were able to implement a school-wide recycling program. They started by conducting a waste audit and established a plan to recycle different types of materials.
The students took the lead in designing posters, translating information into Spanish for the local Hispanic community, re-sorting trash as needed, and writing tips for students to take home to their families. In just one year, they reduced our trash removal costs by $1,200 and diverted about 40% of their waste from the landfill to composting and recycling centers.
Ryan Nitschke, Samantha Cuevas, Dianna Carreon, Fritz Perera, and Daniel Rivera, eighth-graders at School 28 in Jersey City, have designed a project to use drones to map the city’s trees. Team D.R.O.N.E. (Drones Recording Our Natural Environment) pitched their project to classmates, teachers, and sponsors, and won $10,000 to implement their project through the national Lexus Eco Challenge.
The students attach 360-degree-angle cameras to drones to capture images and collect data on Jersey City’s trees. They are sharing their data with local organizations to help monitor the health of local trees and to identify ideal locations to plant new trees. They are currently in the second round of collecting data, to be completed in February 2017.
A few dozen high school students at City Academy in Salt Lake City, Utah, converted their school bus to run on biodiesel. Students started discussing alternative fuels while studying global warming and pollution. That’s when they came up with the idea of making their own biodiesel fuel from used vegetable oil for our school bus to reduce their school’s CO2 emissions. They received a start-up grant from Toshiba and a GreenWorks grant from Project Learning Tree to work on the project.
Their first year, the bus ran over 3,000 miles on fuel from used vegetable oil collected from a local restaurant. They were invited to present their project at a Green Ambassadors conference in Los Angeles. And yes, they took their biodiesel-fueled bus to get there!
Under the guidance of science teacher Jane Orbuch, three high school students at San Lorenzo Valley High in California organized a local environmental conference. Science students Julianna Manseau, Kate Ussat, and Haile Davis set up the speakers, publicized the event, and worked with school personnel.
Both students and adults attended the conference, which featured presentations on their local watershed, ecosystem restoration, and the impact of regional droughts and higher temperatures. Sharing knowledge in these areas is a critical first step to making change, and these students are well on their way.
Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced ‘Shoe-Tez-Caht’) Martinez has been on the front lines of the youth-led environmental movement since the age of six when he began speaking around the world at venues such as the Rio+20 United Nations Summit and addressing the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York.
Currently the Youth Director of Earth Guardians, he has brought a lawsuit against the Obama administration for “their failure to protect the atmosphere and their future.” He has also worked locally to eliminate pesticide use in parks, contain coal ash, and stop fracking. He has received many awards for his activism, and was the youngest member of President Obama’s youth council.
At the age of eight, Greta Thunberg first learned about the climate crisis — and understood the need to take action to mitigate the effects before it was too late.
To spark change, Greta launched the School Strike for Climate in 2018 to encourage students to skip school and demand their governments take action to reduce their carbon footprint and combat the effects of climate change.
While in ninth grade, she staged a two-week strike outside the Swedish Parliament to demand the government cut emissions by 15% per year. Now on week 82, you can follow the updates of her strike on Twitter.
Greta’s climate advocacy has led her to speak at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poland, lead more than 1 million students around the world to protest climate change inaction, receive a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize, and be named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2019.
Do you know of any other young environmentalists doing great work? Please share in the comments!