There’s an unfortunate routine that marks the end of the day at West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. The final bell is followed by a flood of students, then custodians trailing behind, who sift through the plastic water bottles scattered in their wake. The school’s 600 students use too much plastic—and not enough is recycled.
Steven Deaver, social studies teacher and WE club leader at West Side, wants to upend the pattern by changing how students see the environment. And in the process, changing how they see themselves.
From the outside, tackling plastic waste may seem like a low priority for the community. “Most people, when they think of Newark, they think of deprivation, crime and drugs,” Deaver says of the stereotypes that define the neighborhood. Some of his students have experienced violence, homelessness and hunger, he explains. Seeing the waste that spills from the streets and sidewalks into their playgrounds and yards doesn’t help matters. The trash affects how they see their community and, ultimately, themselves. Deaver wants them to become beacons for the community, leading a larger movement.
To do that, he envisions them improving their environment by jumpstarting the circular economy. Contributing to plastic waste reduction will shift their perspective on not just the environment, but ultimately their own ability to make a difference.
“I want them to make the connection between what they see in their immediate environment and what’s going on in the wider world,” he explains. That desire led him to WE’s service learning module made possible by Unilever, Understanding Plastic Waste, and to an application for a grant to support his students’ ideas for change.
“We’re not going to get to zero plastic tomorrow,” says Grade 12 student and WE club member Christiana Igenegbai-Egwiekhor. Plastic is a part of modern life. It’s in computers, cars and clothing. It’s also used for disposable items like straws and water bottles, and that single-use plastic is what Christiana wants to focus on. What the WE club can do is change habits, she adds.
“We can reach people. We can make them aware of the impact of plastic waste on the environment.” It starts with a lesson. Single-use plastics take a long time to decompose. A plastic bottle has a lifespan of 450 years. Styrofoam takeout containers can last for 1,000 years. As troubling as those numbers are, other plastics don’t decompose at all, instead breaking down into smaller microplastics that can seep into waterways, ultimately entering the food chain. If more West Side students knew these stats, the WE club’s theory goes, they’d be much more likely to recycle plastics that will last an entire millennium.
Grade 11 student Mariatu Alale believes that education can shift behavior. “People are persuadable,” she explains. “To change habits, we need to teach people first.” That’s why Christina, Mariatu and the rest of the WE club members have drawn up plans for a school-wide campaign to raise awareness—and that’s where WE’s resources come in.
The service-learning module has background information and statistics to make sense of the problem and activities to help students understand their role in reducing plastic waste. It does a deep dive into better recycling strategies and tactics to use less plastic. Ultimately, students are equipped to become part of the circular economy where resources are reused.
“If we can change the behavior of our students, get them to be aware of the environment, of plastic waste and recycling, we can make a difference,” says Deaver. “With the resources from WE, we’re going to make everyone aware. And if you touch one person who discovers a new passion, you never know where they’ll take it.”
Brainstorm. 'This idea was one after many. The rest ended up on in scrap,' Jameson says. 'This one came to me after a lot of thinking. That’s the number one thing I’ve learned in service work, you have to really brainstorm to come up with solutions.'
Jameson started Circle of Friends—but you don’t have to start your own project to make an impact. His first volunteer act during the pandemic was to help out at a local restaurant, delivering free meals to healthcare workers. “Just look for a need that you can fill,” he says.
Jameson’s volunteer work traces back to him mom, who modeled empathy and compassion for him growing up. She always taught him to lead with kindness. “That’s the first thing to go in a crisis,” Jameson says. “So start with that. Start with being nice, being kind, being compassionate to people in your life.”
If you want to get involved with WE Volunteer Now and discover ways you can make a difference and volunteer from home, check out all the campaign resources here.
Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.