Environmental foundation rewards students' green innovations

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

Environmentalist Lisa Junta was concerned about the waste generated by the disposable lunch trays used at her Fairfax County high school.

"They use polystyrene trays, which are then burned for energy. But when polystyrene is burned, it releases certain toxins into the environment," the Springfield teenager said. "They had reusable trays in the past, but they didn't want to use the washing machines" because there was a concern that doing so was environmentally unsound, too.

So Junta, a 16-year-old sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and publicist for the school's Environmental Impact Club, decided to make it a mission to "green" the school's lunchroom.

She heard about a contest sponsored by the National Environmental Education Foundation in which high school students could apply for grants for projects to help the environment. She proposed greening her lunchroom by replacing the burnable trays with reusable ones that would be cleaned by student and parent volunteers.

She created a budget, came up with an implementation plan and submitted her proposal. She estimated that the reusable trays would cost about $450 total and she needed $50 for bins to keep them in. She would count on friends from the Environmental Impact Club and the National Honor Society to volunteer to wash the trays. The PTA would be asked to find parent volunteers.

The "Green Tray Project" was needed because "every day, between 275 and 300 polystyrene lunch trays are thrown away," she wrote in her proposal. "That amount of waste equals about 20 pounds of plastic. . . . Lisa will introduce reusable, washable trays, which will eliminate trash and will reduce the continuous expenditure made by the school on lunch trays.

"My effort to eliminate trash in the form of lunch trays will be just one step taken in the process of greening my cafeteria, my school, and the many schools of Fairfax County," she wrote.

Last week, Junta learned that she had been awarded a $1,000 Planet Connect grant: $500 for the project and $500 to pay her during an internship with an environmental engineering company this summer.

Mariama Souley Dounda of Westlake High School in Waldorf also won a grant for her proposal to create "a larger-than-life, bottle-shaped sculpture that will be filled with flattened aluminum cans, bottles and plastic bags" to encourage people to "reduce, reuse, recycle or reject items that end up littering streets, parks, forests, waterways and oceans," said Dan Seligson, communications director for the National Environmental Education Foundation.

According to her project's goals, Dounda wants her art to "encourage students and the larger community to consider the impact that their litter can have and how to creatively use recycled materials."

More than 30 students from across the country applied for the grants, Seligson said. Junta and Dounda were among 10 students awarded grants.

"Both Mariama and Lisa stood out for their innovative ideas and desire to solve everyday problems," Seligson said. "Lisa saw an opportunity at school to cut down on waste, and Mariama found a way to not only create artwork out of discarded items but also to raise awareness and to educate her community about litter. These are two great ideas that will make a difference in their schools. We're excited to see how these projects turn out."

More grants will be announced this year, he said.

"This is an impressive group of students who are not only demonstrating a commitment to protecting the environment and appreciating nature but have come up with creative and effective ideas for solving the problems that they see," Diane Wood, president of the National Environmental Education Foundation, said in a statement. "Their unique projects will inspire their classmates and their communities, and we're proud to support their efforts."

Bennie F. Adams III, a Prince George's County teacher, praised the program for inspiring students.

"The Planet Connect grants are great, because they offer students an opportunity to positively impact their communities and environment," Adams, a ninth-grade English teacher at Duvall High School in Lanham, said in a statement. "The internships also offer the students an opportunity to gain valuable work experience to help prepare them for the green economy."

Junta said she is proud of her accomplishment and called the grant "a good start" toward her work to help the environment. She hopes to attend West Point and become an environmental engineer in the military.

"The problem facing most teens that want to have a positive impact on the community is they have no money," Junta said. "Now, I can actually do it. It gives you a good feeling that you can impact the environment in a positive way."

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