2011 Bethesda Magazine Green Awards in partnership with Bethesda Green
Young Activist Club at Piney Branch Elementary School
Category: Individuals 18 and younger who are actively promoting and living a green lifestyle
Ten-year-old Anna Brookes has the air of a policy wonk as she ticks off the reasons to replace disposable trays at her school: They’re made out of petroleum, which requires a lot of greenhouse-gas-emitting energy to produce and contributes to global warming; about 250 of the trays end up in the trash after every meal; they don’t biodegrade and can’t be recycled; and “styrene [a chemical used in the trays] is a neurotoxin and suspected human carcinogen,” she says.
Anna is among more than a dozen third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in the Young Activist Club who have been campaigning over the last three years to ban throwaway trays and cutlery from the Piney Branch Elementary School cafeteria in Takoma Park. They used the Internet to do research and applied math skills to estimate the costs of purchasing reusable trays and utensils.
They wrote a pilot proposal last year and raised $10,000 to buy the trays and a used dishwasher, and to pay someone to run it.
They wrote letters, testified before public officials and did interviews with reporters. And in June 2010, the students convinced the Takoma Park City Council to ban purchases of polystyrene products, and won over the Parent-Teacher Association.
Along the way, they received awards from the Montgomery Civic Federation and the Takoma Voice newspaper, and made a video chronicling the ills of a “disposable culture.” Last spring they also convinced a dozen Takoma Park businesses to sign a pledge banning polystyrene from their establishments.
Only one thing eludes them: an actual ban from the Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education, which disputes the club’s cost estimates as too low.
Meanwhile, talk show host Rush Limbaugh singled out the students’ efforts in a 2009 radio commentary, bashing “American schools—especially in blue states—[as] nothing more than indoctrination camps for the next generation of young liberal activists.”
Brenda Platt, one of the club’s parent leaders, says members consider the Limbaugh critique “a badge of honor.”
Earlier this year, club members briefed the county’s new superintendent of schools, Joshua Starr, in an impromptu meeting. The group plans to keep pressing for the switch, particularly in light of a recent federal warning that styrene may cause cancer.
Anna’s father, Adam Brookes, says the club has “introduced her to a whole new way of thinking about facts.”
As for Anna, “I’ve learned a lot about politics and how local government works,” she says, including “how to say things not meanly, but still be convincing.”