Student Activists Make A Difference

BY ON March 7, 2013

A group of students lying in a circle on the floor.

Students can make the most powerful activists. Older students, particularly around the age of adolescence, start to look at our environmental crisis and wonder, “Why haven’t you figured this out yet?”

These students are also keen on new media and love to break out creatively and make a statement. Take my “Earth Hero” team. This is a team of one teacher (yours truly), and about 15 sixth grade students in Vermont. My passion about the environment has been contagious, and my students want to do something meaningful.

With the help of our local solid waste management community specialist, the students sorted through an entire day of our school’s trash. How perfectly yucky and thrilling for these students! They discovered that many items were in the trash that should have been in the recycling or the compost — and many of the items in the recycling could not be recycled.

The team set out to rectify that issue in our all school meetings. A team of sixth graders taught the younger students how to recycle small plastic containers at lunch. The students were well on their way to reducing waste…

Except for those pesky dry erase markers.

Like most schools in the country, our chalkboard was replaced with a dry erase board — and boy, do we use it. Just take a look at one recent math class:

Dry erase board

These markers only last a month or two, and then they must be thrown out. This outraged the students and myself. Here’s a company that makes an all plastic, vitally important educational tool, but has no recycling program! Refillable options for dry erase markers would cost our entire supply budget.

The other problem with dry erase markers is their contribution to poor air quality in schools. According to MCAF partner, Healthy Schools Network, volatile chemicals are added to help marker inks dry quickly; and fragrances often contain phthalates. Phthalates have been banned in products for children. But apparently not in all products. In this case, they are in a product America’s children use on a daily basis for hours a day at school. Dry erase markers can contain many chemicals that have shown negative health effects in children including Butanol, Diace-tone alcohol, Ethanol, Iso-Propanol/Isopropyl alcohol, Methyl isobutyl ketone, Monobutyl ether and 2-butoxy-ethanol.

Dry erase markers are listed by the EPA as a source of indoor air pollution. Since most schools have poor ventilation and problems with mold and other indoor pollutants, the problem can be magnified. We also know student achievement is related to the quality of a school’s physical environment. So why aren’t more people concerned about indoor air quality in our nation’s schools?

Petition For Change

Starting with a petition to create a recycling program, I showed the class how we could create a online petition asking the makers of Expo markers (the most widely used dry erase markers) to take back the markers. The students jumped on board with such enthusiasm that they could barely do anything else. Working closely with student editors, we created our petition, which you can check out and sign HERE.

The students designed several photos to go along with the petition. And they are just getting started — they’ve created puppet shows, press releases, dance routines, and news updates to accompany their petition. The students have been virtually unstoppable, and within a week we reached over 2,000 signatures!

Dry erase markers spelling "EXPO" with a frownie face

My “Earth Heros” figured out how take action to secure a safer future. Now it’s time for us to TELL CONGRESS TO INVEST IN EPA PROGRAMS TO PROTECT SCHOOL AIR!

Photos: Katy Farber


TOPICS: Activism, Indoor Air Pollution, Schools, Toxics, Vermont