Educating youth is key to creating the next generation of environmentalists

Environmentalism buttons
CC BY-SA 2.0 Ryan Somma

Education is at the core of environmentalism. To be able to understand sustainability, environmental issues, and the importance of circular waste solutions is to be conscious of the challenges faced on this planet, and awareness is the first and most important step in creating solutions. The discussion of implementing proactive environmental consciousness starts with our youth, who have the most influence on the trajectory of our eco-infrastructure. How do we effectively educate younger generations on the importance of environmentalism?

The challenge is preparing the youth to be active participants in addressing present and future environmental issues. A way to do that is to present environmental stewardship as fun, exciting and accessible. Stimulating, entertaining activities like games, competitions, and workshops bring complex concepts like sustainability and resource conversation down to a level that kids can relate to, empowering them to take action, and inspiring them to teach others to do the same.

The NCF-Envirothon, sponsored by the National Conservation Foundation, is a competition that engages students through mental stimulation and the thrill of the chase. As North America's largest high school environmental education competition, this race pits high school students against each other through a series of “field tests,” getting students to solve environmental problems across a variety of categories such as aquatic ecology, forestry, soils and land use. The winning teams win cash rewards, incentivizing knowledge and awareness of environmental issues and the application of tools available to solve them.

Teachers and educators play equally critical roles in paving the way for future generations. One program getting youth involved at all educational levels is the GrowNYC Recycling Champions Program. In partnership with the NYC Department of Education Sustainability Initiative and the NYC Department of Sanitation, this program provides external resources like PowerPoint presentations, set-up and trouble-shooting guides, handouts and signage for use in the classroom and cafeterias to teach students, teachers, and custodians in New York City public schools K-12 about recycling and waste reduction. Blueprints for student activities and faculty development workshops engage and develop at all levels. This type of leadership coming from the public sector allows best practices to be taught to all age groups in the education system, and encourages children to use them in social settings.

Even multinational companies are stepping in to invest in the next generation of environmentalists. For years, TerraCycle has partnered with PepsiCo to promote their recycling program built with kids in mind. Structured like a game, PepsiCo’s Recycle Rally engages students K-12 through recycling competitions and prizes for active participants. The program also offers resources such as art projects, educational resources and materials, and progress tracking tools, allowing educators to introduce younger minds to recycling and promote their school’s recycling achievements. With a total of $1 million in prizes awarded to thousands of schools, and 59 million beverage cans and bottles recycled to date, PepsiCo’s impact has been massive, and continues to grow.

Organizations and companies putting forth the resources to educate younger generations about sustainability are investing in our future environmentalists. Building better systems and resource infrastructures requires people who understand the importance of reducing waste and being mindful of their carbon footprint, and training kids to care about these issues at a young age will provide that security. The same way that conserving resources now will benefit us in the long run, teaching the value of environmental consciousness to youth in the present will create generations of activists in the future.