‘There’s no one easy solution’: How Green Team established a recycling system, their thoughts on Biden’s climate strategy and hopes for the future

Malone and Lawson pose for a photo at the sign-up desk for the Ramblewood Park CleanUp, where they collect their gloves and vests. (Photo courtesy of Robert Malone.)

Bright blue plastic bins sit in classrooms at UPA. With the three white arrows forming an unmistakable triangle, these recycling bins get filled with bottles and cans before being emptied every Friday and sorted once a month by Green Team, an environmental club led by seniors Kylie Malone and Adam Lawson.

“We would take [the bins] back to one of our houses and then we would sort through them and take them to a recycling plant,” Malone said. “We would have to have it separated into bottles and cans and then [the recycling plant] would pay us $1 for a full bag and we put that money towards more bins.”

The idea to establish a recycling system on campus was created through Malone and Lawson’s Girl Scout troop the summer before their freshman year. In order to get their Silver Award by making a positive change in their community, Malone and Lawson brainstormed how they could use their interest in the environment to better their school.

Malone and Lawson soften and shift tanbark at Ramblewood Park on Jan. 12, 2020 to create a safer environment for the children who use the playground. (Photo courtesy of Robert Malone.)

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the recycling rate was only 32.1% in 2018, a decrease from 34.7% in 2015. This means that 32.1% of municipal solid waste (MSW) in the U.S. was recycled and composted that year. Plastic pollution in particular is a major issue in the ocean. A report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts that by 2050, there will be more pounds of plastic than there will be fish in the ocean.

After deciding to create a recycling program for their project, Green Team spoke to Cathedral of Faith, the church UPA leases space from, and learned that the free cardboard boxes provided by the city were not welcome at school due to rats’ ability to chew through them. 

Abiding by conditions from Cathedral of Faith—including using plastic bins, conducting daily checks to ensure there was no food garbage in the bins and emptying the bins regularly—the recycling system was successfully assembled.

Kylie Malone scrubs a grill before collecting the ash in a trash bag and spray painting the grill black again to make it cleaner for park-goers to use for barbecuing at the Kelley Park CleanUp on March 1, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Robert Malone.)

“We used Girl Scout funds to buy the first couple [bins],” Malone said. “Then we had a fundraiser at one of the carnivals to raise money. So then we bought bins and put labels on them that said specifically ‘bottles and cans’ because a lot of people are confused about what can actually be recycled.”

As Green Team began to gain members, Co-Presidents Malone and Lawson began to broaden their horizons by looking at different ways to help the environment. They realized that taking out the trash does not fit in with most students’ idea of fun, so they began joining city cleanups and attending rallies calling for environmental change.

On Sept. 20, 2019, Green Team, alongside other students not in the club, walked to the VTA after school and took part in a strike for climate change at San Jose City Hall with the tagline “The seas are rising and so are we.”

“It felt very independent,” Lawson said. “We went there on our own and, I know this sounds dorky, but we didn’t have parents with us.”

The objective of the strike was to advocate for government involvement in slowing climate change, an objective both Malone and Lawson believe to be a key factor in controlling global warming.

San Jose protestors gather around City Hall for a climate strike protest on Sept. 20, 2019 in downtown San Jose. The strike was to encourage government involvement in saving the environment and the creation of new environmental policies. (Photo courtesy of Robert Malone.)

“As much as I am not the biggest fan of Joe Biden, at least he has a comprehensive plan and is working towards actually dealing with the issue at hand,” Lawson said. “We need the U.S. to be in a position where we are actually working on it because it is an issue that is heavily time-dependent.”

Biden outlined a progressive climate strategy in his presidential campaign, aiming for the U.S. to achieve a 100% clean energy economy with net-zero emissions by the year 2050. On day one of his presidency, Biden signed multiple executive orders regarding climate change, including rejoining the Paris climate accords and reversing several of Trump’s environmental policies.

“I feel like it’ll be a wait-and-see thing,” Malone said. “He’s made a lot of promises, but we’ll have to see what actually gets passed. I definitely think rejoining the Paris accord was the right move. I feel like it’s a good step in reestablishing international diplomacy.” 

The Paris climate accord is a series of international agreements regarding climate change between 189 countries that have committed to reducing their emissions and limiting global warming.

“I think it’s just a really difficult issue because there’s no one easy solution,” Lawson said. “There’s economic aspects, there’s political, there’s all sorts of things that come into play with it. The difficulty of climate change is trying to find something that benefits everyone but still benefits the planet.”

Green Team held two meetings in semester one of the 2020-2021 school year, during which they recapped the last school year’s accomplishments and established goals for what they hope to accomplish in the coming year. 

“We talked about how normally we do the recycling system at school, but since we’re not at school, we’ve kind of not had a running start because we’ve had to shift away from what we usually do,” Malone said. “Also with COVID, it is harder because we can’t just say ‘Alright everyone, let’s meet at the park.’ There’s so many rules and restrictions to make sure everyone is safe.”

Currently, Malone and Lawson are looking into socially distanced cleanups, tree-planting events and an environmental health awareness day for this year. However, due to the increased number of COVID-19 cases since the start of January, they have continually pushed back planning any events until further notice. Despite the setbacks due to the pandemic, seventh-grader Leona “LJ” Cerrato is excited to be a member of Green Team.

“For some groups, it’s just like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re gonna save the turtles,’ and stuff like that,” Cerrato said. “And that’s not a bad thing, but for this group, you can tell we are actually going to try and get stuff done. It’s cool to know that something so fun is also saving the environment.”

Green Team collected ten recycling bags throughout several weeks from the recycling bins at UPA before sorting and taking them to the recycling center. (Photo courtesy of Robert Malone.)

As seniors, Malone and Lawson are in their last year of leading Green Team and hope to pass on their club to a passionate underclassman after graduation.

“I know that students really care about the environment,” Lawson said. “I hope that they know they can make a change. I hope that future UPA students know that they can do things and make changes and plan things to help the environment and further their beliefs.”

Green Team has been able to take steps towards solving a larger issue by making small changes in their community, and they encourage others to do the same. Malone goes on daily walks and occasional hikes with her dad, making sure to pick up trash along the way.

“Our solutions might not be the be-all end-all,” Lawson said. “We might not be solving the problem, but we are doing something, and I’m just proud that we have done something.”