Reduce, Reuse, Recycle...?

Sharon LinSeptember 23, 2016Climate ChangeAwesome Moments

Artwork by Sharon Lin

The wrapper sat dejected on the ground, as if lost among the foliage.

Faded yellow letters, barely visible against the discolored polypropylene packaging, spelled L-a-y-s.

Numerous plastic pouches confirmed how common this scene was at Central Park. Hardly anyone gave a second glance to litter on the cobblestone path. I have been volunteering with Key Club, a student-run community service organization, since I began high school. Although most people I meet outside of the organization are not aware of it, my entire high school experience has revolved around the service activities and community outreach programs I’ve participated in as a result of my membership.

From serving at a soup kitchen to fundraising for children in Haiti, the charities we serve are multiple. However, as much as I adore the charm and goodwill of all of the activities within the organization, there were times when volunteering at a service event forced me out of my comfort zone.

I had been volunteering with my home club—Stuyvesant Key Club—for a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) 5K Walk/Run on a Saturday. A few of my friends and I were assigned to the cheer station, encouraging the participants on with screams of encouragement and funny signs.

Although our job description involved cheering on runners and participants, I knew that I had another mission. Earlier this year, as part of our annual water conservation initiative, our school decided to join forces with the Environmental Club to collect beverage and snack wrappers to send to TerraCycle, a company that transforms trash into usable objects, such as backpacks, and donates or sells them for charity.

"Although our job description involved cheering on runners and participants, I knew that I had another mission."

Not only did I take part in the cheering, but I also kept an eye out for stray wrappers as part of our campaign. Volunteering at the event in Central Park was a blessing and a curse—while I appreciated the number of wrappers I was able to collect, I was dismayed by the amount of litter in one of the finest parks in the city.

As I approached the Lays wrapper, I quickly glanced over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching. I ducked down to snatch up the container, grabbing several others as well before placing them securely into a plastic bag and marching off to discreetly collect more litter.

I wouldn’t have normally been as cautious as I was, but as a volunteer, I felt a little uncomfortable knowing the social stigma associated with collecting litter. Somehow, the popular notion of the homeless collecting bottles and cans from waste heaps has seeped into mainstream culture, forcing us environmentalists into a similar category. I did feel somewhat grimy, picking up wrappers.

The next day, I showed up to school with a plastic bag full of empty chip and cookie wrappers. Walking to the seventh floor of my school, I managed to find the last room to the left, home to the Urban Ecology class at our school.

As I peered into the enormous plastic bins adorning the side of the room, I was both impressed and intimidated by the work of our peers. It was hard to imagine that a few students were able to consume so much junk food and produce so much waste. With a pang of fear, I wondered how long it would take before all of the landfills in the world were overfilled—before humanity would begin to live in its own filth.

This thought was interrupted by the sight of my club adviser.

“Good morning, Sharon,” he greeted.

“Good morning!”

I emptied my plastic container and watched silver-lined bags flutter to the top of the heap, like leaves landing on the ground. The wrappers looked lonely, encased by the translucent bin. A cheerful poster was glued to the surface: “Americans throw away enough plastic bottles each year to circle the earth four times.”

Although my chest felt heavy, I thought back on all the times that my friends and I volunteered to sweep up streets, plant trees, or collect recyclables at schools throughout the city. All the things we did were incredibly small acts in the long run, especially in the face of billions of people around the world tossing away disposables. However, compounded, I had a gut feeling that our work would make an impact on the global scale.

Although a single person can’t change the fate of humanity, millions of people can. From making small dents here and there, it is possible that global change can emerge over time. After all, since 2006, even the ozone hole has been disappearing with the help of world leaders agreeing to abide by international sustainability laws. I don’t see why a few volunteers collecting litter can’t do the same.

I placed the green top back on the plastic bin and walked out, knowing that I would be coming back soon.

Sharon Lin is a junior at Stuyvesant High School in New York. She loves writing prose and poetry, playing flute and piano, baking, watching documentaries, and studying philosophy. She participates in her school’s Lincoln Douglas debate team, varsity golf team, Technology Students Association, and Key Club. Sharon absolutely loves traveling to exotic locations and meeting quirky and interesting people from different backgrounds.