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Berkeley Schools Struggle In Fight To Become More Sustainable

Jerome Paulos
BHS Jacket
Thousands of students and young climate activists join the Climate Strike, organized by Youth vs. Apocalypse, in San Francisco on September 20, 2019.

From Greta Thunberg to Youth vs. Apocalypse, young people around the world are fighting climate change. But in Berkeley, where students have been pushing environmental goals for decades, logistical realities are making sustainable solutions difficult.

Berkeley High is a public school in the heart of downtown Berkeley with around 3,500 students. I met with two students — Zoe Creane, commissioner of environmental sustainability for Associated Student Body leadership, and Emilia Feria, co-president of the BHS green team — about what they’re doing to fight climate change.

Zoe and Emilia help organize environmental initiatives on campus, and there are many. The waste committee, for example, sorts the school’s recyclables and compostables from the garbage bins. There are Climate Activists, which Zoe says is currently “working with Youth vs. Apocalypse to discuss future marches and protests.” There’s the Green Team, which raises money to get clean water to schools without access, the Berkeley High Clean-Up Crew, which organizes clean-ups in parks and other public spaces, and a number of others, all of which are completely organized by teenagers. 

Emilia says that when they talk to students at Berkeley High about environmental initiatives, everyone seems interested. When it comes time to turn their ideas into action, however, it’s hard to get things going. That’s because most of their ideas have to go through adults, including administrators, parents, and the school district. It’s not that these adults don’t care about the issue of sustainability; Zoe and Emilia just question whether or not it’s a priority for the district.

Ric Keeley purchases and distributes food for the Berkeley School District. He assures me that the district is always “trying to be very green and very sustainable as much as [they] can be.” This has included preventing food waste and getting rid of plastic straws. One of the more recent initiatives is to improve the serving trays that students use at lunch. The goal was to get a tray with more space for food, so students can gather their food and bring it to their table more efficiently. Luckily, he says, he was able to find some that both had extra compartments and were compostable! 

That’s when he ran into a problem. It turns out the material used to make these trays comes from China. When President Trump placed tariffs on Chinese imports, that forced World Centric, the company that makes these trays, to raise prices. Mark Marinozzi, Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations at World Centric, says that World Centric does, indeed, make most of its products overseas, and that “it’s been very much a challenge for [them] to find domestic suppliers for comparable, particularly molded fiber, products.”

There are some suppliers in the United States. However, Mark says there are a few problems with their material. First, the plants used to grow the material domestically are much less efficient than the bamboo and sugarcane that’s used in Asia. Mark also told me that domestic material is generally of lower quality than what they can get from China and what their customers have come to expect.

But when I talk with the students back at Berkeley High, it seemed like the tariffs are just the beginning of their problems with this new initiative. Zoe says, “Even if there is compostable foodware, the compost bins are only in the cafeteria and in some locations outside, so if kids go somewhere else to eat, then they don’t even have a compost bin to put their compostable foodware into.” By far the biggest issue, however, is that hardly anybody at Berkeley High even eats in the cafeteria. They can bring food from home, or because of its location in downtown Berkeley, students can go out to eat. Neither Zoe nor Emilia nor most of their friends have ever even had the school lunch!

For those students who do get lunch in the cafeteria and have a place to compost, they still may not properly sort their waste. Emilia says, “If you’re inside, it can be really confusing, because the recycling bins in the classrooms are green, which is associated with composting, and they’re not clearly labeled.” In addition, recycling and composting rules are strict. You can get the bin right, and still have made a mistake. There’s a 10% contamination rule, where products that have been contaminated by non-compostable or recyclable waste can no longer be composted or recycled.

It turns out that Berkeley High actually has as low a waste diversion rate as any other school in the district. With the most students of any of the Berkeley schools, that results in the school having a big environmental impact.

Zoe looks beyond this local issue and towards the bigger picture, where young people all over the world are working to protect the planet. She says, “We’re kind of going downhill at this point, and we’re approaching a deadline, and it feels like we need immediate action. And I think that has to come from everyone in all areas of our lives. At this point in time, this is the most pressing issue that our generation is facing, at least. It’s really important to me, and I know it’s really important to a lot of the students at Berkeley High, that we take this issue seriously and make some big changes so that we can have a world to live in.”