Straying From Styrofoam Project - The Years Project

Straying From Styrofoam Project

By FXB Climate Advocates

By Amanda Zhang, Northville High School, MI

My name is Amanda Zhang, and I’m a rising high school senior from Michigan. I learned about the 3 R’s in an elementary school. As a hopeful, naive eight-year-old, I never knew about the decades-long climate crisis, or that water levels were rising, or that actions of companies today have been causing fundamental damage to the future of human, plant, and animal survival. I thought that reducing, reusing, and recycling was enough to be a good citizen. I didn’t realize that our world needed much more action beyond the 3 R’s. Unfortunately, I think society, at the time, also held that same view. Luckily, I, and the world, have changed since then.

In June 2019, I Facetimed my friend Michelle – not to rant about the following day’s pre-calc final or joke about how erratic our sleep schedules had become – instead, I called her to talk about the environment. Specifically, I wanted to know if she would be willing to tackle an environmental issue with me: our school’s excessive usage of polystyrene lunch trays. She agreed immediately.

That’s how our project began. In the years leading up to that day, I had grown restless at the lack of progress towards creating a greener world. Every day, I would read the news about a wildfire or starving polar bears. It was sickening. However, each day, I would also read about Greta Thunberg, and thought about how she began as a simple girl who ditched school for climate strikes and became an internationally recognized environmental activist. Eventually, I realized that I had been admiring Greta and other strong women for years, and I needed to stop. Rather, I needed to become my own strong woman.

That’s why I asked Michelle, also a passionate environmentalist, to collaborate. Beginning in June 2019, we pursued our project “Straying from Styrofoam” to switch our school’s usage of single-use polystyrene lunch trays to reusable plastic ones, which, unbeknownst to us, was transformative.

We began by contacting schools that have made similar changes and learned their procedure. We connected with advocacy groups like Surfrider Foundation and Maryland League of Conservation Voters to understand key arguments for and against our project. We emailed businesses like Waste Management and Green Worm Services to understand the science and operations behind polystyrene recycling. We met political representatives like Haley Stevens and Robert Wittenberg to understand our political universe. Of course, we often attended long, tedious meetings, encountered days of overwhelming frustration, and met curt individuals, but by August 2019, we had developed and successfully pitched our proposal to our district school board. In October, the supplies arrived.

October 21 marks the day our project came to life. Our efforts were finally tested. Was our project still only a project, or a successful vehicle to help the environment? Did I manage to bring purpose to my life and impacts on the world? Or was I still an idle teenager, admiring from the sidelines as emerging leaders change the world?

Thankfully, the transition to reusable trays went by very smoothly. When Michelle and I walked to the lunchroom that day, we were in awe at the sight of shiny red trays scattered throughout the cafeteria. All the financial data we calculated, the procedures we planned out, and the supplies we ordered suddenly became a reality. Our peers were happy, albeit initially surprised, to use plastic trays. To my excitement, numerous students told Michelle and I that they were grateful to be more involved in the environmental cause and were motivated to make greener adjustments to their own lifestyles. In fact, one student declared that our project inspired him to chase his own endeavor: eliminating our school’s usage of polystyrene cups. That day, I not only bought my first school lunch on a plastic tray, but I also recognized firsthand the beauty of true appreciation, community, and teamwork.

Our initial project ended there, but as expected, Michelle and I have continued to pursue our environmental efforts. Since then, we have been working to repeal the Michigan preemptive ban on local ordinance polystyrene regulations. Similar to our “Straying from Styrofoam” project, we aren’t afraid of the goal’s enormity, and we won’t stop until we create change.

Thirteen months ago, I didn’t know how the decision of that Facetime call would play out. Little did I know, I would learn the power of relentless passion and leadership, but also the reality of criticism and deprecating teen gossip. Michelle and I began as two starry-eyed girls working together in my bedroom. By the end, we became a team of two passionate young women, multiple advocacy groups, and several political representatives united towards positive environmental policy.

Amanda Zhang and her friend Michelle hold up a reusable tray.

Of course, I know that’s far from enough. We are living in an unstable, polluting, and inefficient world where we have no other option except to expect change from everyone, including ourselves. The world doesn’t have the time to wait for young people to grow up and become the next businesspeople, politicians, and scientists. With such a small carbon budget, we must demand current people in power to implement every solution, technology, energy, infrastructure, or design that is financially possible to improve the environment and create jobs – or step down and let someone else take over. I urge you to take action as well.

You don’t need to lead a city-wide protest or speak in front of the UN to help fight against the climate crisis. At a time when climate change action is often placed on the back burner, simply waiting for young people to act is not a solution. No one is exempt from history. The well-being of future generations is being stolen, and we must act now to protect it. Will you join the fight?