The following post was written by our guest blogger, Veronica Kim. Veronica is an upcoming senior at Durham Academy writing about her experiences as a volunteer with Keep Durham Beautiful throughout the summer.
Every Monday morning at Durham Academy, students have the opportunity to make announcements to their peers, whether it be about clubs, sports teams, or anything in between. This year, Annabella Gong, a spirited senior with short hair and a huge voice, took the podium. Gong, leader of the Go Green Club at DA, began the announcement that would eventually become a running joke among the student body: “Please recycle your water bottles, but first, please take your caps off the bottles! The caps are non-recyclable and need to be thrown in the trash.”
After that first announcement, it was gradually shortened to the following scene: Gong sprinting her way down the auditorium aisle to be the first at the podium, a ripple of laughter through the students and teachers as she grinned knowingly at them, and a quick Remember to take your caps off your water bottles before you recycle them! Thanks guys before going to sit back down.
This little episode, although now outdated – since companies have begun to recycle water bottles with caps still intact – is just one example of Gong’s dedication to environmental conservation at DA.
Gong not only started this weekly tradition-of-sorts but fiercely upheld her passions for recycling elsewhere. Every Wednesday, a different DA advisory completes recycling, where the students collect the waste from each recycling bin on campus and consolidate it into three massive containers. It is a messy, unforgiving job that involves many soggy papers, half-empty soda cans, and, of course, the constant need to unscrew the caps from water bottles that have been discarded without regard for proper recycling protocol. However, every Wednesday without fail, Gong and her fellow Go Green Club leaders could be found working tirelessly alongside the advisory members, unscrewing lids, dumping out excess liquids, smiles on their faces.
When Gong was asked about what drove this indefatigable love for the environment, she responded: “I’ve always cared for the environment. I come from a family that is very environmentally conscious… my dad owns a garden, we compost… it’s just a personal interest of mine.” Environmental protection is a topic that has recently been brought to the forefront of public awareness through Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change. Gong shares her views as well; for her, it is not a very two-sided debate. “Sustainability is the one issue that holds no ambiguities… either you protect Mother Nature, or you unnecessarily suffocate your future,” she says.
In fact, Gong went beyond the recycling norm, expanding the Go Green Club at DA to include a new program called TerraCycle®. TerraCycle® is a nationwide initiative that collects hard-to-recycle materials, such as granola bar wrappers, chip bags, shoes, and plastic cups, and upcycles them to create an array of products (including backpacks, park benches, fences, etc). At the beginning of second semester, the Go Green Club gave a presentation on TerraCycle®, and Gong announced that a plethora of small boxes would be scattered around the campus so that students could easily and conveniently TerraCycle® their waste. Since the TerraCycle® program consists of many different categories (after all, sneakers cannot be easily upcycled alongside toothbrushes), DA would primarily be TerraCycling® granola bar wrappers and chip bags, two things that abound on a high school campus.
The TerraCycle® program exploded (for lack of a better term) at DA. Gong puts it this way: “We were just giving it a shot… at first people were like, ‘Oh, this is pretty cool,’ but then we really started to accumulate a ton of waste. By the end of five months we had over a thousand wrappers.” Not only were students actively involved in the TerraCycle® program, they were helpful and friendly towards members of the Go Green Club who were making it happen. “People… would always be happy and encouraging when they saw me,” recalls Gong.
Gong was honored at DA’s Magnificent Seven assembly in April, which celebrates seven outstanding individuals who have made a lasting impression on the DA community. She won the award for “caring for the environment and property” almost unanimously. When the Upper School director stood up to present the award, nearly everybody in the audience had already guessed its recipient.
Perhaps the reason that the Go Green Club flourished this year was due to Gong’s incredible, authentic love for the practices that she preached. “I’m a loud person, and I get really excited about things easily, and infusing that energy into Go Green Club helped elevate it to a more active, known component of campus life,” she says.
When asked about how other schools can work to implement more effective recycling programs, Gong said, “People are open to recycling, they just might hesitate in participating in these initiatives because they don’t entirely understand their value and purpose. It’s important to help them understand why you should recycle, and from there, people will do it.” She stresses that a successful recycling program cannot survive under the guidance of just a few people: “There’s more of an impact [in] having the entire school involved.”
But what is the most important part about leading such a prosperous recycling initiative? “You need someone who is very vocal… who is not afraid to embarrass themselves over something that he or she is very passionate about. I was just really passionate about recycling; people noticed, and then they got jazzed up to participate as well,” explains Gong. “Keep it fun and enjoyable… that is the most effective way to get the message across.”
Her closing statement, though, was a lot more personal. She acknowledged the recognition she received for her leadership in Go Green Club, but also admitted that it was unusual. “I’m very blessed to have been recognized,” she said. “Personal recognition helps encourage me to continue doing what I’m doing, but as long as the environment is making progress and people enjoy doing it, I am very happy.”
To learn more about the TerraCycle® program, visit: https://www.terracycle.com/en-US.