Not many high schools can say their students operate an award-winning recycling program for their county, much less small schools in rural communities.
But teens at New Richmond’s Wyoming East High School get to do just that. Since launching their student-and-volunteer-run recycling program in 2017, members of the school’s Friends of the Earth club have salvaged thousands of recyclable items that otherwise would have ended up in local parks and public roadways.
The group has received several grants and honors from local and national organizations alike, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Education, Try This WV and the PepsiCo Recycling Rally.
According to Brittany Bauer, a life sciences teacher sponsoring the club, her students wanted to be “involved in their community and given an opportunity to lead.”
“Ultimately, they became community game-changers, because they had an idea. And they followed through with it. They were creative and determined, and they worked really hard. … And they saw the change.”
Bauer helped revive Friends of the Earth in 2015 with five students from her AP Environmental Science class.
“One of the students was really moved by learning about the tragedy of the commons, and how with these public spaces, we don't take care of them,” Bauer said. “After that discussion, they started looking around at their environment, and looking at the litter on the side of the road.”
When students first started recycling, Bauer said they started with a 1,000 to 2,000-can goal in mind. They surpassed that within a week. One month later, Friends of the Earth moved onto types No. 1 and No. 2 plastics.
“We were just doing it within the school,” Bauer said. “And then I think some of their parents and their family members, they said, ‘We need this in our entire county, can the school manage that for our entire county?’”
Last school year, Friends of the Earth recycled more than 11,000 pounds of plastic and aluminum, according to data from the school. Factoring in metals and cardboard, the school reports its club recycled more than 17,000 pounds of material.
This year, Bauer says a total 67 students plan to join Friends of the Earth. The group’s goals are still largely influenced by those classroom discussions Bauer facilitated four years ago — not only does the group accept, sort and transport locally-collected plastics to the Raleigh County Waste Authority, but it holds school-wide recycling contests, and they manage recycling for local events, like the Mullens Dogwood Festival.
“Recycling, and kind of the movement that the students created, is drawing awareness to how we should manage our waste more responsibly,” Bauer said.
High Praises From National, Local Organizations Alike
Bauer, a Houston native, came to West Virginia after working for AmeriCorps. She started at Wyoming East as a Spanish teacher. Today, she teaches AP Biology, Honors Biology and Life Sciences from a science-lab-style classroom in the back of the school.
She keeps a small zoo of class pets by the lab stations, including a bearded dragon named Fuego.
“They get to feed the animals and they get to manage it. So it's a little bit more hands-on in that way,” Bauer said. “And doesn't it make it more exciting? I mean, having that little distraction of, ‘Okay, Fuego, what's he doing today?’ It's just nice.”
In July, the EPA honored Bauer with a Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators. In 2016, she traveled to the Galapagos Islands as a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher fellow.
Friends of the Earth itself has garnered much recognition and support for its environmental work. Last school year, Bauer and the club secured a $26,000 grant from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protections for their county board of education, to increase recycling. The club also received a $5,000 grant from the state Department of Education to convert some No. 2 plastics into materials for 3D printing.
A $2,000 grant from Try This WV helped students and volunteers clean litter from more than 30 miles of roadside. Amy Vest, now a tenth grader in Bauer’s Honors Biology class, helped clean with her older sister last year.
“A couple times over the summer, and during school too, we did litter cleanups in Maben,” Vest said. “And people would honk at us as we were going by. So we were doing a good job.”
Vest and her classmates noticed a lot of the items were recyclable.
“We have a lot of people who are on fixed incomes and don't have a way to transport (recyclables),” Bauer said. “If they don't have a vehicle, which a lot of our residents don't have vehicles, how are we expecting them to get rid of this trash? I think that really contributes to a lot of the litter that we have on the side of the road … We can provide a way to reduce some of that. I think recycling, and kind of the movement that the students created, is drawing awareness to how we should manage our waste more responsibly.”
Appreciating The Environment Locally, Respecting It Globally
When Bauer was in the Galapagos Islands, she said a guided tour of the ecosystem there helped her discover plants and animals she wouldn’t have recognized on her own.
“People travel to the Galapagos not for the city, but to see the big giant tortoises -- they want to see the animals,” Bauer said. “We have that in southern West Virginia — we have unique species; we have different crayfish that you can't find anywhere else in the world.”
A few years later, she took her AP Environmental Science students for a hike a Twin Falls, a state park just thirty minutes away from the school.
“They went hiking with a naturalist and they were just blown away, because he was just pointing out ginger, these medicinal foods and how our culture here ties to that,” Bauer said.
As students begin to appreciate the nature surrounding them, Bauer said she hopes they’ll continue to care for it and encourage others to do so, too.
“When you're proud of your area, you want to take care of it, you want it to be clean, and that really was a stimulus for them to start discussions about what we can do to change our community and take that leadership.”
But in Bauer’s class, the benefits of reducing local waste extend far beyond the flora and fauna of Wyoming County.
“If we're littering or dumping illegally, and it's just plastic that ends up getting into the river, we talk about this with the students. Like, where does it go from our river? Well, the Guyandotte connects to where? And they start talking about Huntington and the Ohio River, but the Ohio River goes where? So you can follow how the recyclables, and (the) plastics eventually get into our oceans.
“We take this local lens, and then apply it to a global level, so they can see how what we do here does affect our Earth. If everybody has that same mindset that we can just dump our trash, we all are contributing to what's happening in our oceans.”
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.