West Potomac High School has recycling bins because Juli Smith and Christina Gustavsson formed an environment club last year and advocated the cause to the school’s faculty and staff. "Our main concern was a lack of recycling" said Gustavsson. But recycling was low on the school’s list of priorities. There was not a place for it in the school’s maintenance and custodial routine. "This year we talked to the custodians… And we worked it out with them," Gustavsson continued. "We would take responsibility."
"Complete responsibility," Smith added. The school agreed to a one-time investment in two recycling containers and the group agreed to pay for the bags and to take them once a week to the recycling bins at Mount Vernon Recreation Center.
This type of small-scale initiative is the future of the environmental protection movement, according to Christine Todd Whitman, the former Governor of New Jersey and former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who spoke to Smith, Gustavsson and the rest of West Potomac’s Environment Club on April 5. Whitman has spent much of the last decade, as both a governor and EPA administrator, engaged with bureaucratic and governmental organizations designed to protect the environment, but her message to students was that much of the remaining work to be done lies beyond the scope of bureaucrats and politicians.
We still need regulations and enforcement, Whitman said, but we are "coming to the point where we all have an important role to play." To demonstrate, she referred to a famous accident that many observers blamed on industry and lax government regulations. "The largest single disaster in this country was the Exxon Valdez," she said, but today "there is just as much oil being deposited onto America’s coasts every eight months." She said much of this is a product of millions of individuals and small businesses whose habits for handling their oil waste seem small in isolation but add up to vast amounts of pollution. She said that when the EPA began, its mission was to rein in the massive environmental degradation being carried out by municipalities, large businesses, and other entities that are the most easily affected by Federal intervention. "The EPA was started at a time when rivers were combusting," Whitman said, in a reference to a 1969 incident when Cleveland’s heavily polluted Cuyahoga River caught on fire and had to be extinguished by the fire department.
After 36 years, Whitman said, the EPA has accomplished much of its mission. "Because we were so good at top-down approach we now have to figure out how we’re going to go further." She said. The last phase of this effort will be the most challenging because it must be done by all Americans, not just those who set the regulations and the industries that follow them. This effort will require everyone to change their lifestyles, and many of these changes could be costly and inconvenient.
WHITMAN SAID this behavior change can only occur if groups such as West Potomac’s Environment Club can make environmental protection relevant. "The discouraging thing is if you ask the American people to list the top ten issues [facing the country], they never list the environment," Whitman said. People must understand that "what you do in your lawn or your driveway will eventually end up in a storm sewer or a river and eventually flush out into the ocean."
When a club member asked what high school students can do to waste less and conserve more, Whitman answered with a question, "How many of you drive to school?" She suggested carpooling as one way to conserve energy and reduce pollution. In addition she stressed the importance of "educating your parents." For instance, advising fathers not to dump oil onto the driveway when they are changing it in their car. Whitman also advised looking for "Energy Star" labeled products, which use less energy than identically performing products. According to Whitman, last year the use of Energy Star products "saved the equivalent of taking 20 million cars off the road [or] the need for construction of seven new energy plants."
Whitman also encouraged political engagement. "If you see an issue you think needs to get taken care of, don’t hesitate to get involved." She said it is never too early to speak up at town council meetings. "But do a little research [when] the town council starts to think you know what you’re talking about. They’ll come to you." She criticized the lack of discussion on environmental issues in national politics, citing only a single mention during the 2004 presidential race. But she believes this will change in 2008 because of concerns about fossil fuels and global warming.
"Climate change is real and it’s an issue," Whitman said. And a major part of the response must be for people to make small, personal changes. "Homes actually are the cause of most greenhouse gas emissions. Look around your home and see where are we not being as careful as we should be… Make a change that over time is going to have an impact." The impediment to this, she said, is that it usually "requires people to make a change, or spend some money, without ever seeing the benefit." She cited the pollution in the Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. "It happens so slowly people don’t realize when they get there they should be seeing miles further."
"Everybody likes to drive their big sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and their Hummers," Whitman said, acknowledged the contribution to global warming of America’s car. But she added that land use – deforestation, development, and farming – has an enormous impact as well. "When you spread macadam over an open field, nature can’t regenerate that."
In keeping with her advocacy for a bottom-up approach to environmental protection, Whitman said "state [environmental standards] should be allowed to be tougher" than federal standards, which she described as only the minimum of what is safe, not the ideal limit. "States often do get ahead and often lay the ground work for the federal government," the former governor acknowledged. This stance seems to run counter to the policies of her former employer. In several recent incidences the Federal government under the Bush administration has tried to block states from enacting emissions standards that are more restrictive than current Federal limits.
WHEN ENVIRONMENT club member Becca Tinker asked how to influence public schools to add organic foods to their cafeteria menus, Whitman said that increased cost is a major impediment to the growth of the organic market. It will be necessary, she said, to explain to Americans why they should demand organic food. If enough people are convinced, "a nexus of demand" will lead more farmers to grow organic, lowering prices.
Before going to a school board meeting, Whitman said, Tinker should discuss the idea with the principal and the cafeteria workers. "Find out what the roadblocks are so that you know what the arguments will be against it." She told Tinker to be optimistic. "These things can start small but they build up pretty fast."
After the meeting ended, Tinker said Whitman had encouraged her. "I need to research more into it for a stronger stance," she said, then "go to a school board meeting" where she will raise the issue. She acknowledged that the added expense of organic foods would be a problem, especially since West Potomac has many students who receive financial aid for cafeteria meals. But she said many of the students receiving financial aid are also most at risk for obesity. "The foods here are very fatty. I have them when I don’t bring lunch, and I don’t feel so good afterwards." She mentioned the need to avoid pesticides on fruits and vegetables and the growth hormones injected into many of the animals that become food for students.
Tinker said she has participated in two club sponsored clean-ups, which usually focus on an areas along the George Washington Parkway. Besides the usual litter, Tinker, Smith, and Gustavsson described collecting wooden platforms, tires, lawn chairs, and "large fish."
Smith and Gustavsson, are now seniors and co-presidents of the Environmental Club. They expressed appreciation to Whitman, who came to speak because of a contact with the parent of another club member. During Whitman’s talk, "it struck me we need to be focused on educating individuals," Gustavsson said. "We need to show them cause and effect. Make them more aware of what they do," added Tinker.
And is there enough awareness of West Potomac’s new recycling bins?
"Well," said Smith, "they’re full." Each week the club takes away two bags filled with plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and glass.
"We see kids putting stuff in there all the time," said Gustavsson.
"It’s very encouraging," Smith added.