StopWaste at School


Enter your email address to be notified of new content:


Combating Global Warming

What's the best way to combat global warming?  Surely it will take a wide range of approaches, innovations and changes to the way we use energy today. 

Carbon concious consumers often examine what to buy or not to buy in relation to greenhouse gas emmisions (Should I buy the hybrid?  Should I not buy plastic bags?)  The focus on what to purchase limits our vision and keeps us from making simple changes that could make a big difference.

In a 2007 memo from ESA Associates to StopWaste.Org, ESA examines the carbon savings in three scenarios a school district might pursue to reduce emmisions:

  1. Switching to a biodiesel fuel blend for school buses
  2. Installing a 32,000 square foot photovoltaic solar panel array
  3. Modestly improving recycling from 30% to 35%.

As you consider the scenarios, think about how we produce, use, and waste energy. Which scenario do you think will make the biggest difference?  Which one is the most cost effective? Which one would be easiest to implement?

Login or register (for free) as a user of this site to read the ESA memo and their findings:  ESA Green House Gas Memo

What difference are your waste reduction and recycling efforts making?  Visit the EPA's WAste Reduction Model (WARM) calculator to find out.

Math Mondays

IcosahedronIcosahedronOne of my favorite organizations is Make.  Make is dedicated to tinkerers, inventors, crafters and others who build stuff stright from their imaginations.  Makers frequently transform discarded objects and remake them into new stuff.

Make's blog partners with the Museum of Mathematics to host a section called "Math Monday" which usually teaches how to make a physical representation of a mathematical or geometric concept.  This recent post teaches how to create an icosahedron from reused plastic bottles.


Nate IvyNate IvyAs coordinator of the Service-Learning Waste Reduction Project, I frequently come across fantastic examples of people taking a second look at the ways we use and waste resources.  In fact, there are so many emerging stories that my attention is often diverted from the task at hand to examine an innovative idea or approach for rethinking the challenges we face.

These "distractions" frequently take me in a new direction (as distractions tend to do).  I hope to use this space to share some of the ideas that capture my attention and lead in interesting directions. In future posts, look for articles that:

  • Describe a new way of looking at problems
  • Highlight "problem finders" - those that have defined a problem that others have ignored
  • Showcase innovative solutions
  • Share promising practices for reducing waste.

If we can't imagine a better future, we can't create it, so it is essential that we provide students with opportunties to rethink the world they live in and give them chances to practice trying to solve real problems.  (BTW, "real problems" are ones that have not been solved yet)   We can't expect that young people will develop the creativity and problem solving skills needed to address the very real problems the world faces if we don't give them opportunties to practice.  Hopefully the ideas shared in these posts will provide some inspiration to rethink, reengage, and recreate a better tomorrow.

Trashed Talk

Guest post by Eboni HaynesGuest post by Eboni HaynesWhen we throw something away, where does it go? And how much does personal consumption affect other people?

Trashed, released in 2012, is a documentary that focuses on the big picture and the environmental hazards from an over-wasted population. I got the opportunity to see a free screening of the documentary Trashed and it brought up a lot of concerns regarding the U.S and the way we hide waste, thus making us an extremely careless society.

In the U.S., we dig a big hole, put in a fancy liner to prevent leakage, and then fill the hole with garbage. After that mound of garbage gets too big we cover the garbage with dirt and grass to make it look more natural. This in turn, creates an illusion that our garbage just disappears. I would not say that it causes us to consume more, but I think it definitely causes us to care less.

We are fortunate enough to live in a country with education and resources that could help us reduce the amount of garbage we generate, but instead we have an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude. In the film I learned that landfills often have toxic chemicals such as leachate, benzene, pesticides, heavy metals, and cancer-causing chemicals. Although landfills are lined to prevent leakage, the liner will eventually breakdown, tear, or crack. In other research, I learned that 33% of women who live close to landfills have children with birth defects.

Landfills are not the only way to dispose of garbage; in many other countries incinerators are used. Incinerators have more harmful side effects than landfills. They emit toxic dioxins, mercury, and other chemicals. In the film, the people who lived in the East, specifically France and Vietnam were severely affected by incinerators. Many of the farms in France were shown ruined by the toxic dioxins of incinerators. Plants and cattle died, meat and dairy were ruined, and people got sick. In Vietnam, children were severely affected by the dioxins, leaving many of them mentally and physically disabled. It really made me think about consumption and waste in a whole new way, and how everything we do affects everything around us.

Trashed was a great film that exposed the truth of trash, and that's the current how do we deal with future?


Eboni Haynes is an Environmental Education Associate at the iRecycle@School Education Center.

Restoration Project Inspires Environmental Responsibility

Guest post from Chiara Swartout, EarthTeam's Restoration Director

Richmond High School's Aqua Team waist-deep in Garrity Creek, conducting a rapid trash assessment during 2012's Coastal Cleanup DayRichmond High School's Aqua Team waist-deep in Garrity Creek, conducting a rapid trash assessment during 2012's Coastal Cleanup DayI have worked with middle and high school students for over six years in the realm of watershed stewardship. I've seen students trying out the various forms stewardship takes, from teaching children about water flow and making seed bombs, to hikes and camping in state and national parks, to installing native plants in the place of invasive species freshly removed. They have conducted these activities in their communities and neighborhoods as well as preserved lands an hour's drive away.

The most outwardly startling, inspiring, and surprising moments of growth from my students did not come within the context of seeing pristine, wild beauty or handling dirt. While unstructured time to explore forests and beaches was peaceful and enlivening for many of my students, and they ripped invasive ivy with gusto and installed native plants with care, they became the most fired up I would ever see them when they witnessed various forms of degraded trash accumulating along creek banks and estuarine shorelines. It is during and after trash pick-ups that the exclamations of surprise and what-do-we-do-about-this conversations would commence.

I get it. It's hard for me to enjoy peaceful, pristine areas when there's so much work to be done both there and everywhere else less pristine or damaged.The latter seems to give people a more outward sense of purpose. Now I'm not saying that I or my students did not find these peaceful moments of enjoyment purposeful and necessary; there just seem to be less words exchanged about these moments, which in and of itself holds a separate, equally important meaning. However, I haven't asked my students outwardly why they, when given free reign to select a service-learning project, choose to conduct public outreach about litter reduction or build benches out of plastic bottles filled with trash.

Richmond High School's Aqua Team goofing off after a work day with SPAWNERs in El Sobrante.Richmond High School's Aqua Team goofing off after a work day with SPAWNERs in El Sobrante.I don't know why I have more frustrated, surprised, and angry conversations with students right after we all realize that no matter how many pieces of trash you pick up from that corner of the wetland, the only real way to impact that corner is to remove the top foot of soil, which is sprinkled with thousands of pellets of degraded Styrofoam. This doesn't happen after we roll several cubic yards of invasive ivy and remove it from the restoration site or install one hundred native plants in the span of two hours.

Students conceive of art projects on the spot during clean ups and begin collecting Black and Mild tips for their sculptures because they look like duck bills. Maybe it's because the litter they witness and pick up is the stuff of their everyday lives as city kids, much more so than plants. They know it better, know how to interact with it, understand their direct impact from littered streets to littered waterways.

I used to minimize the time we spent conducting rapid trash assessments and picking up trash informally as we explored and restored. I hate the idea of having students pick up other people's trash; this is what people do as punishment! I stopped worrying about this when students unhesitatingly said they actually enjoyed picking up trash and collecting data about it.

The most satisfying, unintended, lasting consequence of my teaching came on the last day I met with my Richmond High School students who participated in an after-school watershed stewardship program I facilitated called the Aqua Team, many of whom had been with me for three years. After over a dozen field outings ripping out invasive plants, mulching around freshly installed natives they themselves had planted, learning about plant adaptations, bird watching, and rapid trash assessments, I gave them their final post survey to test the knowledge I thought I had covered: marine debris, native plants versus invasive plants, bird adaptations, etc. And while the last meeting was winding down and we were reflecting on our time together, they weren't babbling about sticky monkey flower or the invasive ivy they witnessed in their neighborhoods. They did babble about the camping trip and bike ride as being their favorite moments, which were the expected favorites.

Skyline High School seniors picking up trash in the wetlands at the Martin Luther King Regional Shoreline in Oakland."Skyline High School seniors picking up trash in the wetlands at the Martin Luther King Regional Shoreline in Oakland."And then, randomly, one of the girls mentioned that she had totally stopped littering. Used to do it all the time, and now it drives her nuts to see other people doing it. The other students nodded in agreement, and admitted that while they used to litter, they all stopped. It took three years, and it wasn't even the focus of most of our time together, but they all changed their behavior in such a meaningful, impactful way, without being asked, tested, or paid to do so. Isn't that what environmental education is all about?

--Chiara Swartout, Restoration Director

OUSD wins Golden Bell Award for Sustainability

DSC_1092-3DSC_1092-3Congratulations to OUSD for winning two Golden Bell awards from the California School Boards Association. One of the awards recognized OUSD's sustainability efforts.

OUSD's Green Gloves program provides students and teachers with opportunities to contribute directly to the stewardship of their physical environments, specifically their schools.

Under the leadership of the District's custodians, the program has developed procedures for implementing recycling and composting programs at District schools that include step-by-step manuals outlining tools and steps for program implementation; guidelines and suggestions for forming student green teams and engaging parent/community members; and curriculum materials and activities connecting the program to classroom learning objectives.

An important innovation of the program was the recognition that a one-size-fits-all approach was not going to work for adopting new sustainability practices. In response to this finding, the Green Gloves program team established a practice of identifying and evaluating the available resources at each school site so that customized solutions could be developed.

"We came to two crucial realizations at an early stage," explained OUSD Director of Custodial Services Roland Broach. "The first was that custodial leadership provided the foundation for a successful program, yet despite this, that position in a school's hierarchy is rarely perceived as a leadership role. We had to change that. Thesecond key realization was that student leadership also played a critical part in program success."

As the individuals making the daily decisions on what to throw away and where, students and teacher participants were identified as key ingredients to program success. Additional key resources for implementing the program included: administrators and or teachers to champion the initiative at each school site, parent and community volunteers to support custodial staff and teacher efforts, and local government and non-governmental partners to supplement district resources and provide technical expertise.

The Green Gloves program relies on the leadership of custodial staff for program design and implementation andencourages them to engage students and teachers with the program roll-out. In return, the District activelyrecognizes custodial contributions at the fall and spring "Green Gloves" symposia. In 2010-2011 custodiansinitiated and led improvements in recycling and composting programs at nine school sites in the District, bringingthe total to 28 schools district-wide.

The Green Gloves program is also noteworthy because it creates opportunities for student leadership and learning. The program builds student awareness of sustainability issues, and links those issues to science contentand opportunities to build critical thinking, problem solving and decision making skills. As students develop ideasfor solutions to those issues, they are provided with opportunities to take action and learn how to measure theimpact of their projects and communicate those findings to their fellow students, families and members of the larger community. Finally as student ownership of the project expands students are provided with opportunitiesto look for larger scales of stewardship in their schools, homes and communities.

The District has partnered with a local government agency, StopWaste.Org, to provide a direct link betweenstudent leadership roles in the Green Gloves program and student learning outcomes in the classroom that alignwith state content standards. The Green Gloves program utilizes project-based instruction Student Action Project curricula and Service-Learning Waste Reduction Project curricula to engage K-5 and secondary students respectively.

OUSD has saved substantial sums of money due the Green Gloves program's success. Improvements to recyclingand compost programs that were implemented by custodians and students currently save the district $50,000 per month. The District is presently diverting more than 41% of its solid waste and projecting additional savings of $20,000 per month once the 50 percent benchmark is reached.

Falling Whistles – A sobering story about natural resources

Cell PhonesCell PhonesIn 2007,·Americans disposed of 140.3 million cell phones. According to the Electronics Takeback Coalition, one ton of cellphones (about 6000 units) contains about $15,000 in precious metals. For 2007 that would mean about $350 million in precious metals, discarded.

This past weekend, a sobering story was brought to my attention, regarding the resources that we take for granted every day. When I speak at schools, I often talk about natural resources and the catastrophic consequences that the extraction of those resources can have on the environment and the people who depend on it.  I have not spoken, at this point, about the very real conflict that these resources can generate, and the extent to which that conflict has killed.

The Falling Whistles story is a reference to the children involved in the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Those too young to even carry a gun are sent to the front lines of conflict carrying only a whistle.

Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to hear Sean Carasso, of the organization Falling Whistles, speak about his experience advocating for social change, and the mission that he has taken on since 2007, raising awareness about the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. What war? you might ask. That is certainly a question that had come to my mind.  It is the deadliest war since the Holocaust, having killed over 6 million in the past decade, with people continuing to die every day. It is estimated that as many as half of these individuals are children. What does this have to do with talkin' trash? Congo is an area rich in natural resources. It was initially exploited for the slave trade under King Leopold II, then for rubber in the late 19th century (owing first to the popularity of the bicycle, then automobile), and now copper, tin, coltan (used in almost every electronic device), and industrial diamonds.  Warring parties in these countries exploit these deposits for export, and use the money to fund the ongoing conflict. Unfortunately, there is currently little transparency in where electronics and diamonds are sourced, and the fact is that many of our cell phones, computers, and other electronics probably contain minerals from this region. Electronics have far reaching impact on the other side of the materials life cycle as well, when these materials are disposed of overseas, in unregulated recycling markets. (Check out this Greenpece segment on "Electronic Waste in Ghana" at

So what do we do about it?

Falling Whistles spreads the news about the Congo by selling Whistles, and asks that you be a "whistle blower for peace", shedding light on the issue of the ongoing conflict and on our own unintentional role in it, through consumption of these highly contested resources. Check out their video "Peace is the New Frontier" at, and falling_whistlesfalling_whistlestheir website for more information, and to become a whistleblower for peace.

Part of the problem with addressing the problems related to minerals fueling the conflict in Congo, is the fact that the supply chains are not transparent, that is to say, an electronics company buys the minerals, but does not mine them, so they do not necessarily know where those minerals were sourced. There is a movement underway to mandate that tech companies certify that their products contain no 'conflict minerals', similar to the campaign strategy of conflict free diamonds (, but currently such certifications do not exist. Because of this, it is up to us as consumers to demand accountability for the products we use. provides ways to get in touch with companies, as well progress reports on the state of conflict free mineral supply chains. Check out their video for their ENOUGH campaign at

Thinking about all this, and sitting here typing it up on a computer that might well be part of the problem, it seems like almost too immense a challenge to overcome. Electronics are everywhere in our society, and we depend on them. For this reason, it is important that we bring light to the situation, and not shy away from it. It is important to recognize the full costs (and value) of the things that we use every day. In a world where so much of that information is obscured, the consumer must advocate for the knowledge they need to make good decisions.

To Compost, or Not To Compost ?

Everyone loves sporks!Everyone loves sporks!I admit, the wool was totally pulled over my eyes on this one.

Last week, I attended an incredibly eye-opening board meeting at, Alameda's premiere waste reduction agency. At each monthly board meeting (open to the public), various field experts are invited to help provide information relevant to's mission of reducing the waste stream in Alameda County, and potentially influence future policy work. This board meeting was the second in a series of three, focused on bioplastics, or "biodegradable plastics." I was already skeptic about the much-loved, and lauded, "answer" to disposable cutlery and table ware; I had heard some rumors flapping around that they weren't entirely compostable, but it was at this meeting that I finally got the full scoop.

To begin with: not all bioplastics are made alike. Some are entirely bio-based (i.e. made of potatoes, corn, sugar) and therefore compostable. Others are a mixture of plastic polymers and bio materials (for instance, plastic enmeshed with cornstarch), and are degradable – not necessarily compostable. The difference between the two lies in how fully that spork will decompose: if it's a fully bio-based utensil, it will eventually break down into water and carbon-dioxide (i.e. it is "compostable"); if it's that plastic/cornstarch kind of spork, it will break down into plastic splinters, water, and carbon dioxide (i.e. it is "degradable").

Degradable, protein-based coffee cupDegradable, protein-based coffee cupThese mixed / degradable items were introduced as a solution to America's litter problem. Instead of a traditional plastic spork being abandoned, curbside, for the hundreds of years it takes plastic to decompose – a spork made of plastic and cornstarch could at least be broken into smaller, less noticeable pieces. This is a solution similar to BP's response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill: if dispersants are used, and all that oil is broken down into itty bitty amounts, the problem has "gone away"; it's no longer visible to the human eye, and thereby, as the logic goes, it's no longer a threat.

So if not all bioplastics are made alike, isn't it simply a matter of being a savvy consumer, and reading the fine print of what products are fully bio-based? That way we could know what sporks to put in our green bins, and what sporks to put in the landfill, right? Unfortunately, individual education is not the key – national policy is. There are no standards currently in place in the U.S. to quickly, visually determine which bioplastics are 100% bio-based, and which are not. This is an issue because when our food scraps are sent off to large-scale composting facilities, there isn't enough time for workers to examine each utensil and decide whether it's "compostable" or merely "degradable" – all utensils and tableware are plucked off the sorting line and disposed of. Something like a black light (where only bio-based items glowed) or color-coding (like only bio-based items can be green) could help facilitate this process at composting facilities, and provide an easy way for someone to immediately distinguish if something will fully compost or not.

If you want to even get further technical about it: workers would probably continue to pluck bioplastics off the sorting ramps, even if they were all 100% bio-based. There is a lot to consider regarding the methodology of a composting facility, and how it processes its product. Bio-based plastics may be "compostable" – but under what conditions? Not all bio-based products are made alike, and neither are all composting facilities. We lack standards for how and how long something labeled "compostable" actually takes to compost, too. According to one source, at Recology Grover Environmental Products in Vernalis, "No reputable composter, in their right mind, would leave (bioplastics) in compost, unless it was intended to become ADC (alternate daily cover at a landfill)." Composting facilities ensure that their product passes through multiple screenings, beyond the kind of initial "picking station" I had referenced earlier, where workers pick through the materials and discard unwanted items. From what this source said, it didn't sound like a bioplastic spork would make it to the finished product – especially if it were only partly decomposed by the time the other food scraps had degraded into lush, dark compost.

Having decided to do some sleuthing of my own, as a follow-up to the board meeting, I was surprised to learn that what I thought were straight-forward questions regarding the topic of bioplastics were, according to one source over the telephone, "a little like asking how tall the building is." Unoffended by the comment, I realize now the scale of complexity of this issue: beyond the diversity of processing at composting sites, and the diversity of bioplastic products themselves, lies the ultimate intention of the finished compost: would it be sold as organic, or conventional? Most composting facilities in CA strive to get an OMRI listing, or the Organic Material Review Institute. OMRI is a nonprofit, based in Oregon, that "provides organic certifiers, growers, manufacturers, and suppliers an independent review of products intended for use in certified organic production, handling, and processing." This is essential for being certified with the CCOF, or California Certified Organic Farmers, a membership organization that promotes organic farming and small-scale agriculture. The problem is: many bioplastic companies don't care about being certified organic, and so their products are not made to get an OMRI listing.

Bioplastic..... litter? Landfill?Bioplastic..... litter? Landfill?"There's a big fight brewing in the regulatory and commercial world," my source explained. "And as of yet, there's no moderation of these forces. There's a big push in some cities for increased diversion, but you only have several choices (to make that happen): gasify, compost, recycle. Even if bioplastics compost, or degrade, they don't meet organic standards, so what do you do with it? Right now there's no central planning of how it will all work out." Composting facilities, at the end of the day, are still running a business: the product they sell is finished compost, which can be a hot commodity for landscapers and farmers in CA if it's organic, less so if it's conventional. Hopefully, the next wave of bioplastic companies and products will be prepared to address this issue, so that it's truly a win-win: bioplastic products can successfully be composted (instead of being successfully sent to the landfill), and composting facilities can still make their organic certification.

As of now, then, California's compost facilities don't want our bioplastics, nor do the recyclers (they weaken plastics recycling). Only the landfill folks don't mind them. So where does that leave us? I admit I initially felt uneasy, even betrayed, by falling for the bioplastic "solution;" I thought back to all the times I had carefully, consciously, purchased the more expensive Spudware and other bioplastic tableware to use at events to make them "zero waste." If bioplastics use just as much petroleum to produce as regular plastics, and they can't even be composted, what is the point?

As Einstein put it, you can't solve a problem at the same level of mind that created it. Of course there are plenty of opportunities for policy change – for new standards to be put into place to identify which sporks are plastic, which are potato, and which are a combination of the two; for standards regarding the conditions under which that potato spork will compost; and lastly, for standards that will determine how bioplastic utensils can be certified organic. For now, I'm writing bioplastics off as another successful greenwashing creation, and challenging myself to make things zero waste the old fashioned way: planning ahead and using truly reusable items (i.e. metal forks and spoons, chopsticks), or making a finger-food friendly menu. I also know better than to pay extra for those bioplastic utensils, as that money is better spent on other enviro-causes than something destined for the landfill. I challenge you to make the same commitments, and re-think America's dependence on single-use items. I also invite you to check out future board meetings, and to continue to educate yourself on other greenwashing strategies and products. The more you know, and can educate others, the more we can all ensure that we're truly working for a more sustainable future, not just a well-marketed "green" one.

Plastic Sandwiches

Plastic or??Plastic or??Recently, dosage having forgot my lunch for the day, I went to get a sandwich at a new place in town. I had been there once before, and knew the sandwiches were good, but had an issue with the container they came in.

The large plastic container was made more unpleasant due to the fact that the delicious sandwich that it protected sloshed wildly from side to side in the oversized container, unable to gain purchase on the slippery bottom.

When I came back to the sandwich shop, I was ready to confront this unfortunate side effect of an otherwise delicious lunch. I asked for a substitute for the cumbersome plastic, something that might better suit my sandwich eating style. The purveyor assured me that I would want a reseal able container, so as to best make use of the extensive buffet of toppings.

The next statement made me take pause: I was assured that this establishment paid a premium for only compostable plastics, meaning that they would bio-degrade, just like food scraps and yard waste. The business was obviously trying to do the right thing and this intention made me feel good.  Yet I was confused because the plastic looked unassumingly average: no eco-plastic, or bio-plastic, or biodegradable name tags to let the consumer know that they were doing their part by using ‘sustainable’ plastic alternatives.  I left with a feeling that both I and this shop owner were not getting a fair shake.

I decided to do some research, and found that the company manufacturing the containers, Pactiv, had a rather compelling case for their plastics. Not compostable plastics, mind you, but for their typical plastics. According to the company and their sources, polystyrene takes up a relatively small amount of the municipal solid waste stream, as compared to other packaging products like paper. Once all of this material is sealed in a landfill, there is almost no air or sunlight, making conditions poor for anything to biodegrade, including paper. If this is the case, and nothing is really going to decompose anyway, then why not go with the material that will take up less space? For more information on Pactiv’s packaging choices, check out their product guide.

Pactiv’s assertions assume that material will be going to the landfill, and that paper packaging products are not diverted to composting or recycling programs; this makes sense considering that in much of the country, municipal food scrap recycling (composting) is not available. Given that there are currently not many options available for compostable materials, do Pactiv’s arguments about the merits of polystyrene hold water?

To follow up on my sandwich saga, I went back to my local sandwich spot, and informed the purveyor of my discoveries: his containers, for which he was paying a green premium, were actually your average polystyrene. Lightweight, yes, but also completely permanent. After I eat my sandwich, that container might go into a landfill, it might get blown into the ocean - either way, it goes somewhere, and stays there forever.

We can see that there are different arguments to be made. On the one hand, polystyrene is inexpensive, and it may not take up too much weight in the landfill. On the other hand, it is permanent, and made of oil, a non-renewable resource. What about biodegradable packaging? It has its own plusses and minuses. Yes, it may decompose at the end of its lifecycle, but not if it goes to the landfill. And yes, it is produced from plant starch, which is renewable. All that growing requires land, water, and yes, oil too.

Every day we make choices, and weigh consequences. It can be hard to know how to do the right thing when the choices are so complex. As long as we exhibit some sort of intentionality, that we have some sort of reasoning for our decision making, then we can keep having important conversations, and work our way towards the real truth of the matter, whatever that happens to be.

Sea Stars & Fireworks

{jcomments on}

colorful sea stars, <a href=colorful sea stars, viagra 100mg from" style="margin: 10px; float: left;" />

So what do a five-armed sea critter and    Katy Perry have in common – much less to do with garbage?

Now that it’s the New Year and resolutions are fresh, school is back in session, it’s important to think about what inspires you – or rather, what really helps mobilize you to continue doing the environmental work you’re doing. Every environmentalist/activist/change-maker should have a toolbox of favorite catch phrases, songs, and stories they keep in reserve and can pull out every time they feel disheartened or discouraged about their efforts.

For me, there’s the parable of the sea star, an oldie but goodie: the story of a boy who takes a walk on the beach one morning, and finds the sand littered with thousands of sea stars. A big storm from the night before had washed them up on shore, and now they were stranded far above the tide line. The only other soul in sight was an old man who was making slow progress across the sand, stopping to delicately pick up each blue or violet sea star in his path, and toss it back into the ocean. The boy watched the old man repeat this act for several minutes before approaching him.

“It’s really great you’re doing that,” the boy said, “but there are thousands of sea stars out here. What difference can you possibly make?”

The old man considered his answer for a long moment, gazing out across the beach in the morning light and then down to the sea star at his feet. He then stooped, gently picked up the small echinoderm, and tossed it safely into the water. “Well,” he finally replied, “I made a difference for that one.”

The story continues, with the boy wordlessly joining the old man, and the two of them inspiring the other morning walkers, joggers, and sunbathers to help until the beach was at last free of sea stars. It’s a parable I love because its core is so simple: we can never predict how far our influence may go, what change our actions might engender, and that’s a profoundly healing concept. Every accomplishment is something to celebrate because of its potential to spread: whether it’s inspiring one student/friend/co-worker to change his/her behavior, or converting your family to the 4R’s, or simply being a positive role model of sustainable behavior to those around you.

But that’s just in my toolbox – and I recall that story every time I begin to feel discouraged about the kind of difference I’m making, trying to re-teach the concept “garbage” and help schools reduce waste. For another student, she admitted she loves Katy Perry’s song “Firework,” which helps her remember what strength she has as an LGBTQ student and to keep doing her best to help others.

So whether you love or hate pop music, or whether or not the parable of the sea star does anything for you – it’s vital that you discover what inspires you, and that you keep adding to that toolbox each year.

What stories, songs, or quotes keep pushing you forward for your change-work?