Student campaigns for two years to implement a composting program at her school.
by Kathleen Lane-Smith
At 12 years old, Hanna Sills wasn’t looking to become an eco-warrior, but an opportunity to lead Huntley Centennial Public school’s fledgling eco team opened her eyes to a problem she hadn’t seen before.
Every day, Hanna had walked past trash cans overflowing with browning apple cores, sandwich crusts and banana peels from student lunches, but now she didn’t just see the waste, she saw a challenge. The solution was a composting program for the entire school. It was an ambitious project for the newly formed eco-club, but Hanna knew they had to try. She spent two years researching and planning, while trying to win the administration’s buy-in. She needed to convince them the program wouldn’t rely on the school’s janitors to function. Unfortunately, her age didn’t do much to help her case. “I found it hard as a 12-year-old to have the confidence that the adults I was working with would listen to me the same as they would the other adults,” shares Hanna. “I just had to remember that what I was fighting for was important to me.”
Now, three years later, Hanna—15—has moved on to a new school, West Carleton Secondary School, but her legacy endures. On a recent trip back to Huntley, Hanna was welcomed by halls lined with green bins. Overtop the bins hung posters created by students to illustrate environmental issues. Strolling through the school, it was undeniable, Hanna had brought both environmental action and awareness to Huntley Centennial Public. She notes proudly, “I think that, over the years, our school’s initiatives, like the green bin program, have made our school community more aware about making environmentally conscientious decisions.”
Beyond her school community, Hanna has caught the attention of eco-friendly company Seventh Generation for her environmental advocacy. A pioneer in plant-based products, Seventh Generation is named for its belief in caring for the planet today to ensure its health for the next seven generations. Hanna’s contribution has landed her a space on the WE Day Canada stage on July 2 to encourage youth and families to take part in Seventh Generation’s #coldwaterclean pledge to help preserve the planet for future generations.
WE caught up with Hanna before the big event to learn more about what protecting the environment means to her and how she thinks people across the country can help protect Mother Nature as Canada moves into the next 150 years.
You’ve been taking part in some impressive environmental initiatives. What first motivated you to get involved?
My school was looking for a student to head their new eco-team. At the time, I didn’t have the same passion for the environment that I have now. It wasn’t until I started to think about the importance that the new team could have that I noticed all the issues surrounding the environment in my community.
What inspired the idea for the school composting program you ended up proposing?
By the time it came to garbage day each week, our small classes would somehow always manage to leave our garbage cans overflowing—the majority of this would be compostable waste. This was disgusting. It was in our school’s and the environment’s best interests to implement a more sustainable way of dealing with our waste. The compost program our city offers seemed to be the perfect solution.
It must have been challenging to get the program off the ground. In the beginning, what were some of the obstacles you had to overcome?
I had a really hard time convincing people that the program wasn’t just extra work for the school. There were various concerns that the work would all fall [on] the janitorial staff. I suggested that, on a certain day, we have a kid from each class take their green-bin to be picked up by the city of Ottawa.
We hear the composting program took you two years to implement. How did you stay motivated?
It wasn’t hard to stay motivated, since we’re constantly seeing the impact we have on the environment. I wanted my school’s impact to be a positive one, so I did whatever I could to strive towards that. As well, I had great support from my teachers and my parents, who always believed in me and were there to help me navigate when it got tough.
Overall, what have you learned from this experience?
The biggest thing I learnt from this experience was the value of working with a team and the importance of the support it gives you. Without teachers like [mine]—Ms. Graff—supporting youth like me and giving us the resources we need, many of the initiatives in our schools and communities couldn’t happen.
What’s one piece of advice you would give someone interested in making a difference in their community?
Don’t let your age stop you. No matter how old you are, you’re always able to make a difference. All it takes is perseverance, working hard and dreaming big.
What’s one action you would like people to take every day to keep our planet healthy?
When it comes to the environment the little things go a long way. If we all wash our clothes in cold water, we can save energy and reduce our carbon footprint. Did you know that washing your clothes in cold water saves 4 million tons of carbon dioxide? That’s the equivalent of the amount needed to heat 1.5 million Canadian homes for a year!
Who is your personal hero and why?
I’ve been so lucky to have such great people in my life. The biggest role model so far would have to be my old teacher, Ms. Graff. She has gone out of her way to help and touch the life of every kid she’s taught. She is unendingly positive and always motivated. She taught me to always be committed to what you believe in.
What is your dream for Canada’s next 150 years?
I’m so fortunate to live in a country that’s leading and exemplary when it comes to protecting our environment. My only hope is that we continue to maintain the reputation we have and continue to create opportunities for environmental change.