Northwest Classen students do their part to keep trash out of landfills 

After lugging around bags of empty soda bottles for an environmental club at her Oklahoma City high school, 17-year-old Andrea Hernandez decided to take her eco-ethics home to a family that wasn't all that excited to hear her ideas.

Her mother acted confused when she found her daughter labeling the family's trash bins by categories: plastics, paper and aluminum.


"They were like, 'What were you doing?'" Hernandez recalled. "I was like, 'Recycling!'"

They asked about the new labels and trash bins and she told them they needed to "get used to it." She's willing to get a little bossy if it means less waste goes into a landfill.

"At my house, we recycle now," the sophomore said with a smile. "I'm like, 'Now, you better put that in the recycle bin.'"

Hernandez's role as the recycling police may work at home, where the city of Oklahoma City provides convenient blue bins that residents can fill up with recyclables. At Northwest Classen High School, where Hernandez is a member of an environmental club, her trash busting takes more work.

Oklahoma City trucks don't pick up recyclables from Northwest Classen or other city public schools; the city program only serves residences. A faculty member drives the plastic bottles from the school to the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, about 15 miles to the north, where they can be recycled, said DeAnn Deason, the recycling group's sponsor.

The anecdote illustrates a trend that some find troubling: Few cities in Oklahoma make recycling easy for residents, and those that do, like Oklahoma City, often don't help students participate in the practice. According to Judy Alvarez Mosley, a spokeswoman for Oklahoma City Public Schools, only about half of Oklahoma City's public schools have recycling programs. As the district does not have a policy on the issue, students have had to start some of those programs themselves.

In doing so, they face a variety of obstacles.

Some are economic. Schools in the district that want to recycle have to find companies who are willing to recycle their raw materials. Some schools simply haven't been able to find recyclers that will pay them for their plastic bottles and cans, Mosley said.

There are also signs the international economic meltdown is creating less of an incentive to reuse goods. As consumers buy less, manufactures need fewer raw materials and are willing to pay less for them. The Associated Press reported in early December that, in some markets, plastic bottles that sold in September for 25 cents per pound now sell for only 2 cents per pound.

Others barriers are cultural. Deason said her Oklahoma City students aren't born into a culture of recycling like some kids in the suburbs " or in other cities " might be. 

 The students at Northwest Classen are trying to buck all of these trends, however, because they say environmental issues like recycling are too important to ignore. Deason, a biology and environmental science teacher, said that, in the process, they're doing nothing short of redefining environmentalism for a new generation.

As she points out, they certainly don't look like the old guard.

While the environmental movement often takes criticism for being old and white, these high school kids come in all colors and wear all styles. At a recent club meeting, five of the students were Hispanic, four were black and two were white. One girl wore shiny black pumps; others sported beaten-up Converse sneakers. One student had his hair dyed yellow on one side and natural black on the other. Another looked ready for a sorority rally with a hooded sweatshirt and gym pants.

Diversity and youth are the club's strengths, Deason said.

The students are quick to say the same. They're tired of older generations speaking for them. The club gives them a chance to have a voice.

Jesse Askins, a 16-year-old sophomore, said people from his grandparents' generation don't care about what happens to the planet. It's up to the youth to push environmental awareness.

"It's not their problem," he said. "It's ours."

Askins, who spoke with a headphone playing '90s punk music dangling out of his left ear, said he tries to lead by example. When friends offer to pick him up to go hang out, he politely declines. He'd rather ride his skateboard, he said, because those wheels don't run on fossil fuels.

"The temperatures are going to get more radical," he said.

He said he rode the skateboard as far as Moore once. The trip took five hours, but it was worth the adventure.

Other students said they feel the need to tell their peers about their views in a direct way.

Sometimes they prod their relatives and friends on environmental topics, as Hernandez does with her family. Jazmyn Ammons, a 14-year-old freshman, said she yells "Recycle!" at kids she sees throwing away pop bottles in school trash bins.

"'Cause I'm loud, people listen to me," she said.

At the start of a recent meeting, Yuri De Leon, a 15-year-old sophomore with a black ribbon in her hair that fell halfway down her back, said the group should stand up in a school pep assembly to raise awareness. She also offered to read recycling news over the school intercom in Spanish.

This is how Deason envisioned the club working. Students chime in with ideas and she supports them.

Deason founded the club in 2007 when she moved to Northwest Classen from nearby Taft Middle School. The switch made her notice something unpleasant about high school students, she said: They use plastic bottles like they're going out of style. Taft only had one vending machine; Northwest Classen had more than one on each floor.

She started meeting with students after class to look for solutions.

Soon, Deason had started a plastics recycling program. The club got donations to buy recycling bins and put them out in the hallways near vending machines and the standard hangouts. Once a week, her 35 club members pick up the waste from the bins and bring it in bags to her classroom.

She tosses them on the balcony outside her purple-walled classroom and waits until a faculty member has time to pick it them and drive the recyclables to Edmond.

Deason said the fact that the city doesn't make it easier for schools to recycle is frustrating, especially given the fact that she sees city trucks drive down N.W. 25th Street each week to pick up recyclables from homes in the same neighborhood.

She sees the club as an extension of her class work " a link between the school and the rest of the world.

Students in environmental science, for instance, learn about the waste stream. Many of the students had never thought about where their trash goes until that lecture, she said. Once students learned that plastic bottles often go to landfills where they don't decompose for 700 years, they were alarmed and wanted to do something, she said.

"This is really a weird concept for them," she said. "My son grew up recycling. They just never did think, 'Where does that plastic go, and how long does it take to break down?'"

Deason said the reason her students hadn't heard of recycling is their environment. Their school is in the city, and until the club went on a camping trip in northwest Oklahoma, some of its eco-minded members had never left Oklahoma City limits, she said.

"I don't know that they'd ever seen a landfill. Why would they have? We're in the middle of the city," she said.

With more knowledge and exposure, she said, they care. "John David Sutter

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