San Francisco — With sandwich bags, wrappers, plastic lids and containers scattered about in parking lots, quads and by building entrances, the lack of “litter literacy” on school campuses is a national problem.
The School Waste Reduction Program reports that schools on average produce about 500,000 pounds of waste each day. Much of this waste is left on school grounds and is able to fly to the ocean and other animal habitats harming the environment.
Fourteen-year-old Amelie Serang, who attends the Ruth Asawa School of Arts in San Francisco, thinks that teens should be doing more for the environment.
“It makes me angry that people are littering in my school because it’s everyone's space. My classmates think that one piece of plastic won’t make a difference. But at the end of the day it is our generation who will have to deal with the consequences of those careless actions,” Serang said.
Dangerous environmental issues associated with pollution are well-documented and go beyond slipping on a plastic bag, attracting rats and exposure to bacteria. Land animals die from ingesting non-biodegradable trash, while plastic waste makes its way to oceans, lakes and streams where fish and turtles die from eating it or become snared in plastic rings.
In addition, discarded plastic is that the sun, wind and water motion break down plastic waste into harmful small particles called microplastics (MPs), MPs are non-biodegradable materials and enter the soil and water. Humans and other animals inevitably breathe them in, drink them, or ingest them in the food chain. They can accumulate in our tissues with a possible risk for health. The World Health Organization and numerous studies have revealed links to dramatic reduction in sperm counts and quality. The same problem has been identified in male fertility in other male animals as well.
A study on child behavior in the scientific journal “PLOS ONE” suggested that teaching environmental awareness as early as possible so that by the time kids show up at school, they have lifelong good habits. Careless attitudes about garbage have led to a floating island of trash in the Pacific Ocean that is twice the size of Texas. The ocean floor has approximately 14 million plastic microfibers per square kilometer of litter. Lakes pollution is also common, as illustrated by a Rochester Institute of Technology study that found that 22 million pounds of plastic debris enter the Great Lakes every year.
Lower education schools such as Marin County School District in California and the Kingsbury School in New York are pushing back at the problem by putting up signs, increasing the number of trash cans and recycling bins and strategically placing them. A growing number of schools such as Alamo Heights ISD in San Antonio have been encouraging students to use metal utensils and reusable containers.
California climate activist Sarah Goody has made it her mission to educate students about the effects of climate change and how to take action through her organization Climate Now.
“I think the most important action we can take is to develop awareness of our own impact on our environment,” the 18 year old said. “I think every day one should take a moment to think: how have I contributed to climate change today, where I can decrease my carbon emissions, can I try to reduce my plastic waste. Everything we do from the electricity we use, the cars we drive, the food we eat, the clothes we wear — all have an impact on climate change.”
Frustration over the ongoing trash problem at Roosevelt Middle School in San Francisco has led to instituting trash duty for anyone caught littering. Offenders are given a plastic bag and gloves to pick up trash during their lunch period. Higher education institutions such as Southeastern Louisiana University are cracking down on litter bugs, as well. Violators are ticketed by University Police and referred to the Office of Student Advocacy and Accountability for disciplinary action. Faculty, staff, contractors or visitors who violate this policy are ticketed and penalized with a $50 fine or 10 hours of community service picking up trash. Repeat offenders may be subject to additional sanctions.