Congratulations Sonia!

2012 Essay Contest

Winner - 2nd Place

Experiences of an Emerging Environmental Activist

- by Sonia Max (Walt Whitman HS)

Today, I make up one seven billionth of the world’s population, but somehow I don’t let this defeat me or become a mental trap. My passion for environmentalism and dreams of improving the world outweigh the practical implications of being just one person. I think that most people naturally are interested in making healthy life decisions but don’t necessarily know how to make environmentally healthy ones. If young people and adults were given tips on how to live sustainably in an easy and inexpensive fashion, more would probably do so. For the past few years I have tried to be the person bringing initiatives and guidance to my school and community. Some of the ideas that have inspired me have come from personal experience and others are from what I have read.

In my sophomore year of high school I watched Tapped, a documentary about the bottled water industry. I learned that Americans buy 29 billion single-serve bottles of water every year, much of which is actually bottled tap water (Tapped). If Americans could only learn to fill their own reusable bottles, they could be spared much expense while protecting the environment. Not only would less plastic be produced, we would also use less oil to transport the bottles. Tapped inspired me to start a campaign at my school against the use of plastic water bottles. At about the same time I began leading the environmental club at my school, the Green Team; and I made this my first project. We spread awareness by making morning announcements and posters that conveyed some of the shocking facts from Tapped. We also sold 200 aluminum, reusable water bottles with our school name and logo.

For students who continued to buy plastic bottles and cans we made recycling at school easier. We had persuaded the school to order more labeled recycling bins so that bottles and cans, paper, and trash could be separately collected in every classroom and hallway. Also, we noticed that at Friday night football games the crowd always left the stadium full of trash and recyclables, all of which the janitors would discard. We organized a group of volunteers to help clean up after the games, and in just ten minutes we would save several huge bags of bottles, cans and aluminum foil from the landfills. We organized two annual recycling drives: denim (donated to Habitat for Humanity for house insulation) and shoes (to the Nike-Reuse-a-Shoe project).

We also volunteered at the biannual Electronic Recycling Drive run by Montgomery County. A few years ago I read that there are “43 U.S. companies that try to sell e-waste for export to Asia […] In China and elsewhere, electronic gear commonly is stripped for reusable microchips, copper, and silver; dangerous metals are dumped […] often close to farms or sources of drinking water” (Elgin). Learning this fact made me realize that good environmental decisions take investigation and persistence. One must make sure, as I did with the County Drive, that donations are handled by an environmentally responsible organization so that toxic metals do not contaminate soil and water sources.

Another meaningful experience I had was going to the solar decathlon on the national mall this past autumn. The decathlon is a competition between colleges in designing and building solar-powered, eco-friendly houses. The Green Team and I walked through a few of these houses; and although the houses were small we were amazed by how attractive, cost effective and livable they were. It occurred to me how wasteful America has become by making very large houses the norm, or the desired. My neighborhood alone seems to be a perpetual construction project. The moment one new ‘mega-mansion’ on our block is finally complete it seems that another neighbor is announcing plans to demolish their house and build a bigger one. Instead of focusing on how to make the largest and most luxurious houses, people should aim to produce houses that can run on less energy. Publicizing the virtues of small efficient homes might help to change future building practices.

For most people waste removal is “out of sight, out of mind,” yet I can’t stop thinking about landfills. I can’t get over the fact that burying trash is widely accepted. What happens when these landfills become landfulls? Will the land beneath my future home be soil or plastic? Un-recycled trash seems even more ominous when I remember the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, a swirling soup of plastic rubbish about the size of the state of Texas. It is not feasible to clean this up because the majority of the plastics have disintegrated through photodegradation into small debris. We can stop adding to the pollution by conserving, reusing and recycling, and this is a message that the public needs to hear.

The more I learn about environmental issues, the more impassioned I feel to share my knowledge. Maybe it is more convenient to purchase one’s own new plastic water bottle when one wants, but this type of choice doesn’t make environmental sense. Living sustainably is a responsibility we must all accept. Of course we should encourage scientists to continue searching for sources of clean gas, and engineers to invent energy saving technologies such as solar panels; but we cannot just delegate the responsibility of protecting the environment to a small group of people. It has to be a team effort, a community effort, and gradually a worldwide effort.

Spreading awareness and encouraging community action is, as I have learned, incredibly easy and rewarding. Here are the three general steps to take. First, educate oneself on the issues one feel most passionate about; second, develop ideas for projects and initiatives that address these issues; and third, communicate to the community through e-mails, educational videos, school newspaper coverage. I am thankful that I was able to carry out many of my ideas as a high school student, and I look forward to continuing this effort at college and beyond.


Elgin, Ben, and Brian Grow. "E-Waste: The Dirty Secret of Recycling Electronics."Businessweek. Bloomberg, 15 Oct. 2008. Web. 2012. .

Tapped. Dir. Stephanie Soechtig and Jason Lindsey. Atlas Films, 2009. DVD.