Students use own energy to boost recycling efforts

Posted: Friday, May 30, 2003

Stop. Don't throw that soda bottle away.

Thanks to the efforts of a student group, residents in the Homer area now can recycle Type 1 (PETE) plastics, which include one- and two-liter soda bottles.

Homer Alaska Youth for Environmental Action, led by student president Whitney Cushing, instituted the community recycling program last month. Students from the group gather in the lower parking lot at the high school from noon to 3 p.m. the first Sunday of each month to collect recyclable plastics from the community.

They then sort through the material, removing labels and bottle caps, and store it in a Dumpster on loan from the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

When enough material has been gathered, the borough has agreed to bale the load and send it to Anchorage to be recycled.

The borough already offers a number of recycling options. Most transfer facilities on the peninsula accept newspaper, soda cans, office paper and glass for recycling. Plastic, however, takes more effort, Cushing said.

Loads of plastic must be kept pure, and the sorting takes more effort than the borough can afford.

"It takes a lot of manual labor," Cushing said. "That's the advantage of having a youth group go through it."

The students are preparing for their second monthly community drop-off, planned for this Sunday. Though the first drop-off garnered little response only a few people showed up for the minimally advertised recycling program the students aren't about to give up yet.

"Something like this takes a significant period of time to catch on," Cushing said.

The group's other successes also have given students plenty of hope that plastic recycling will pick up eventually.

The student group, sponsored by the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, started last spring as both a school club and a nonprofit community organization.

"The goal is to take the creativity and hard work of youth and focus it toward addressing environmental concerns students feel are important," Cushing said.

The students started out by identifying the different environmental problems in their region, the impact of those problems and the degree of difficulty to find a solution. They quickly found the lack of recycling a significant problem with an easy solution and decided to focus their energy in that direction.

"Recycling is important because it shows care for the natural environment we subsist on," Cushing said.

"It's a symbolic issue in regards to what you use compared to how much waste you put back."

One of the first projects was to implement a recycling program at Homer High.

"We were distressed at the complete lack of recycling in our school," Cushing said. "It is our school, and we have some pride in it, so we decided we could remedy that."

HAYEA started a comprehensive program for aluminum, glass, paper and cardboard recycling at the school, and recently added plastics to the list. The program has been immensely successful, he said.

In addition, the school recycling program won the group the fifth-place award in this year's Caring for the Kenai contest, which recognizes high school students and groups for their efforts to better the local environment. The award provided a cash reward to both the school's science department and the HAYEA recycling program.

But the students weren't satisfied with staying within the school.

They also hosted community dialogues, which resulted in an adult group focused on expanding recycling in the community.

A couple of student members, including Cushing, also attended the Civics and Conservation Summit in Juneau in March. The summit, hosted by the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action, teaches participants to analyze environmental issues the way lawmakers do and covers civic skills including how a bill becomes a law, public speaking and issue campaigns.

"I got a better sense of how stuff works in Juneau, a better sense of the process and a feeling for the strategies people use to go about campaigns to make change," Cushing said.

Those skills likely will come in handy as Cushing and other members of HAYEA continue to work for environmental protection in the Homer area.

"I think there are serious problems with rates of consumption and rates of growth. It won't work to maintain our quality of life if we consume the same amounts," he said.

"Most scientists say we need to change our ways to survive. The warnings affect my generation the most," he added.

"It's a call to action."

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