I started recycling bottles and cans when the recycling law was first passed in 1982. My young friends and I weren’t doing it to save the planet; we just wanted the five cents. We searched garbage cans throughout the town to gather enough cans to buy some candy and ice cream. We were unwittingly diverting trash from the waste stream, so we were environmentalists by default.
Back then there was less awareness that our actions impact the earth. In the coming years, I learned about Earth Day, and about Rachel Carson and the Silent Spring, and slowly began opening my mind. But it was in college, when my Senior Thesis classes focused on environmentalism, that my real love of caring for our earth developed. I was exposed to world-class speakers on the subject, from Lois Gibbs (who organized and rallied her Love Canal community to question why their neighborhood was built on a toxic waste dump) to Lester Brown (founder of Worldwatch Institute and Earth Policy Institute). It was scary. It was eye-opening. It was inspiring.
I began rallying against unjust treatment of our earth—joining boycotts, protests, and movements. There are so many important issues that are worthy of our energies. The environment is literally one we all share. Its health IS our health. The problematic issues I learned about back in college—global warming, pollution, water shortages, and bio-piracy—are huge, and have only gotten larger. It may be argued that our individual impact on any of these issues is insignificant. But just look at what Lois Gibbs, Rachel Carson and Vandana Shiva have accomplished. Individuals are powerful, and together we have collective impact.
In the 23 years since I began recycling those cans for nickels, I’ve grown to realize that the candy wasn’t the sweetest part about what I was doing.