By Madelyn Trimpi
Photo: Madelyn Trimpi on an internship in Costa Rica, planting trees with the Monteverde Institute.
The most significant experience I had in school about climate change was when I wrote an essay about plastic pollutants for the Bernie Sanders Essay Contest in AP Government and Politics. I always knew that plastic was bad and that we should stop using it, but until I dug into the research, I didn’t understand the profound impact that plastics have on the chemistry and health of ecosystems. Plastic is hazardous to our bodies and our environment. Along with greenhouse gas emissions, plastic pollutes ecosystems by merely entering and never leaving.
My research also made me extremely aware of how much plastic I consume and how much the school uses. In the cafeteria alone, hundreds of single-use plastic containers, bottles, and silverware are thrown out daily. Before the pandemic, the school was consuming massive amounts of plastic, and it seemed like only a small group of students and staff were aware and trying to mitigate the waste. Suppose there was a more extensive conversation amongst members of the school community to help the students and cafeteria staff address the packaging issue? In that case, our school could further ourselves on the sustainable route.
Not only is plastic an ugly pollutant in our habitat, but plastic-borne chemicals disrupt hormones in our bodies. Some of these chemicals include bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, which have been found to disrupt hormones in humans. BPA has been linked to increasing the risk of congenital disabilities, metabolic diseases, and other health problems. Among other health risks, phthalate exposure has been found to reduce testosterone levels in male fetuses. Testing has shown that even in BPA-free plastics, 70% of the products released chemicals that performed like the sex hormone, estrogen. When plastic was tested after dishwashing, microwaving, and sitting in the sun, studies found that even more estrogen-like chemicals were released.
Plastics also have a considerable carbon footprint. At the beginning of their life cycle, gas and oil are extracted (sometimes fracked) from the ground, then made into plastic. This process releases harmful pollutants like CO2 and nitrous oxide that accrue in the atmosphere and warm the earth. In addition, burning fossil fuels releases pollutants that lead to early death, heart attacks, respiratory disorders, stroke, exacerbation of asthma, and absenteeism at school and work. If more people were aware of the damage plastics are having on our fragile systems and our bodies, would we see a faster shift to safer and reusable products?
I also wish that climate change was normalized in conversation and class discussions across the curriculum. My only real exposure to climate conversations within my academic setting has been in my AP environmental studies and AP Government and Politics classes. Some clubs offer lots of information and are dedicated to making environmental changes. Still, clubs are elective, and time is limited, making it challenging to spread a big message to the entire student body.
For example, it would be fascinating for English classes to require reading a book about climate change and develop a study unit around that reader. The Nature of Nature by Dr. Enric Sala and Six Degrees by Mark Lynas are just two examples of books that present climate justice and examine issues from the corporate level down to the smallest daily effort one person can make to have a positive impact. My biggest takeaway from Six Degrees was that the slightest effort of deleting your unread emails could have a massive effect on shifting our climate impact habits. The average spam email causes emissions equivalent to 0.3 grams of carbon dioxide per message. Emails, texts, and other messages are transmitted through the internet and stored in data centers, using electricity harnessed from fossil fuels. This means that if every person living in France deleted just 50 emails and emptied their trash daily, it would save enough electricity to light the Eiffel Tower for 42 years. (The population of France is about that of the combined populations of Texas and California.) These books are also packed with simple things people can do, from decreasing their carbon footprint to impacting climate change politics.
Simplifying the overwhelming information is a crucial step in education because many people can feel helpless when talking about climate change solutions. I often hear “not everyone can buy a Tesla” and “organic food is expensive.” While, these statements are true, these are not the only solutions. If we learn about and normalize simple behaviors, like deleting emails, we can make a difference locally to help the community globally. Whether you believe in climate change or not, it is a critical topic of discussion. It should be a familiar topic in-class conversations, throughout the general curriculum, and in creating school designs and policies to create a more healthy and joyful body and learning environment.
Madelyn Trimpi is a senior at Woodstock Union High School.