Planting Seeds for Environmental Action

Over the past several months, our education team at CSD has been working to build on our portfolio of programs and focus areas to integrate concepts of environmental awareness and sustainable development across the education spectrum.  As we work with committed communities of young people in Ghana, Rwanda, India and Myanmar to discuss and develop grassroots strategies for combating climate change and environmental degradation, one question that has been at the top of our minds has been, “what else can we be doing here at home to make change in our own communities?”

A Global Crisis of Mismanaged Waste

While it may be easy to point fingers at the poor waste management practices in countries like China and India that lead to dumping of plastic into our oceans and waterways, the US exceeds any other nation in our per capita consumption of plastics. China is the only other country that comes close on consumption of plastics, but we must not forget where much of the demand for cheap goods from China comes from.

It might be easier still to let ourselves off the hook because of what we believe to be our strong waste management systems. While we may carelessly consume obscene amounts of plastic, we can rest easy knowing that, as long as we did our due diligence and put our waste in the recycling bin or garbage can, it won’t end up in our oceans. But what this tidy equation leaves out is the increasingly urgent challenge of our country’s recycling capacity being unable to handle the amount of waste we generate. This may not have felt like such a big deal a few years ago, when we relied on exporting our waste to other countries, but as those countries increasingly grow in global power, they are pushing back to say “No More”.

In 2018, China banned all imports of plastic waste, and earlier this year, India followed suit. These bans have simply pushed the crisis to other Southeast Asian countries, creating scenarios such as one in Malaysia where ports are overrun with plastic and other waste with no capacity for handling it. This rapid influx of plastic waste being dumped in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries has prompted the upstart of an illegal recycling industry, impacting the health and safety of communities who have become the unwitting victims of we westerners’ out-of-control consumption habits.

Investing in expensive technologies to improve our capacity for recycling and otherwise managing different materials is one possible solution, but so is educating ourselves and our communities on ways we can make more eco-friendly choices, including considering the packaging and materials used when choosing what products to buy. Another strategy picking up steam across the country is passing local bans on single-use plastics such as straws and plastic bags.

Coming back to our question about we can do locally, we can start with the low hanging fruit. As a mother to a 4 year old living in a city that is getting ready to implement a new plastic bag ban, I worked with my son’s teachers, and government officials from the City and County to organize a field trip to the Lincoln Park Wetlands in Jersey City to engage the children in learning about ecosystems and how our habits at home impact our natural environment, and to send them home with helpful info and tools for their families.

 

Discussing global challenges through our local environment

Prior to 2009, what is now the beautiful wetlands area of Lincoln Park along the Hackensack River was for many years an illegal dumping site. The blighted area created an unhealthy habitat for local wildlife, and minimized the coastline’s natural function in protecting Jersey City from future effects of climate change. In 2009, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received $167 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to fund coastal restoration projects. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection applied for funds to restore 42 acres of wetlands at Lincoln Park. The project received $10.6 million.

Through the project, over 42 acres of tidal habitats were restored, illegally dumped materials were removed, and rebuilt marshes were rebuilt over repurposed dredge sands. A pond was reconnected to the Hackensack River, restoring natural flushing of the pond to support wildlife. Finally, the beautiful walking trails and historical markers were added to the recreational resources of the city.

Today, the wetlands offer a sanctuary to residents of Jersey City, particularly those residents on the west side, a neighborhood that struggles to contain the major challenge of trash on its streets. While the wetlands are a well-maintained area, the persistent problem of trash in the community is visible when walking along the trails, where it is easy to find trash washing up on the shores of the wetlands and flowing out to the Hackensack River and further out into the Atlantic Ocean.

 

Connecting Environmental Action to the Curriculum

 With this history of the wetlands and the connection between the neighborhood’s trash problem and the proximity to the Hackensack River in mind, the field trip was planned to align with Earth Day, and outlined a set of learning objectives aligned to the school district’s High Scope Curriculum for Pre-K.

Learning Objectives included:

  • Foster an appreciation for our natural environment
  • Learn about local wildlife
  • Understand the history of our park and our local environment
  • Understand how our actions (mis/managing our trash) impact our environment

In the days leading up to the field trip, students read stories during class about protecting the environment, and discussed what happens to trash that gets thrown in the appropriate place versus trash on the ground. Students also drew pictures of rivers and lakes, discussing what kinds of animals live in and near water.

During the field trip, students visited the different historical markers along the nature trail, learning the story of how the place used to be piled high with trash, and then the people in Jersey City decided they wanted to clean it up and restore the natural ecosystem, working together to make it happen so that we could have this beautiful space to enjoy.

Students learned that wetlands are the most biologically diverse type of ecosystem, meaning they have the most different kinds of plants and animals! Students pointed out different wildlife they saw (mostly birds during our visit), and learned how the water moves through the channels and ponds and back out to the river to create a natural purification system and help protect our shoreline.

As we walked, students were encouraged to take notice of anything that looked like it didn’t belong there, namely trash, and discussed how it was not nice to look at and could be hazardous to the health of the wildlife.

Planting the Seeds for Change

Before getting back on the bus, students were informed that they would all get a coloring book about recycling, and learned about how many of the products we use can be made into new things over and over again. Teachers and students went home with brand new tote bags provided by Jersey City’s Office of Sustainability and flyers explaining the plastic bag ban going into effect in June 2019.

It may be hard for adults to change our habits, but maybe if our bright-eyed young children bring home some new ideas, we’ll be more motivated to try something new. And where that fails, at least the next generation will know better!

If you’re interested in hearing more about our global environment in action education programs and curriculum resources, please reach out to tstafford@ei.columbia.edu.

 

 

 

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