Boulder Youth Are Leading Today’s Sustainability Movement

Boulder County has a long history of youth lead environmental activism. But in the last decade, rallies organized by young people concerned about sustainability, like one at CU Boulder in 2014, are becoming increasingly frequent and ever larger.

The spike in local environmental youth activism is in line with 2017 data from the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Annual Survey 2017 showing for the third year in a row nearly half of the 31,000 thousand young people surveyed said they believe climate change is the greatest threat they will face in their lifetimes.

Addressing a crowd of around 200 people from the stage of the Boulder Bandshell in 2007, 6-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez gave his first speech in support sustainable living.

“Every choice we make is for or against our future. Now who wants to make a better future for us and our children?” asked Martinez.

Now 18 and Director of a worldwide conservation organization called Earth Guardians based in Boulder, Martinez’s mission to protect the environment is extending far beyond Boulder County.

In 2015, the young indigenous activist addressed the United Nations General Assembly asking them to take immediate action to address climate change.

“We have to realize that what’s at stake is no longer just planet, it’s no longer just the environment but what’s at stake right now is the existence of my generation… so youth are standing up all over the planet to find solutions to the issues that will be left to my generation,” said Martinez.

And also in 2015, Martinez filed the Juliana v. United States of America lawsuit against the federal government with 21 other young plaintiffs to defend future generation’s right to a stable climate.

“We will not allow the federal government to silence our voices… We will continue to stand to ensure a healthy just and sustainable planet for our generation and those to follow,” Martinez told the public in press conference on the suit in Eugene, Oregon.

Within Boulder County, a growing number of young adults are dedicating themselves to sustainable living at the local level, organizing climate actions and starting eco-focused community programs like Respect Your Mother Recycling.

Kevin Emory is Founder and Director of Respect Your Mother. Each week he and a team of around 12 young volunteers help collect and process large quantities of recyclables of all sorts, mostly collected from fraternities around CU Boulder.

As a zero-waste program the Respect Your Mother team transports all the recyclables by bike with durable, customized bike trailers in all sorts of weather.

“It’s not an easy task,” says Emory. “Especially with a full load of 200 pounds. But, it was the model the whole time. We really wanted to alleviate that emissions waste and ultimately reduce our footprint.”

Living on The Hill near CU Boulder, Emory noticed the small recycling bins provided to fraternity houses were constantly overflowing and massive quantities of recyclables were then discarded as trash. So, he launched Respect Your Mother, supplying large, donated containers to collect the house’s overflow recyclables.

Emory says that strategy is helping the frat’s stay on track with Boulder’s zero-waste goal of increasing landfill diversion by 75% from 2005 waste levels.

“And what we’re primarily seeing is that diversion rates from fraternities since we started, we’re at about about 60% right now and so we’re trying to reach up that 75.”

“To be honest, I think it’s night and day. The usage has been pretty incredible. It’s really not hard to throw a can into a big container. And, especially when we do have a lot of cans on our property, we see the benefit and the potential harm that we could cause. So, I think everyone has been really receptive to that. A lot of these [bins] are already starting to get pretty full and I think that speaks to the program,” says McConnell.

Trash outside a frat house at CU Boulder.

According to McConnell, as the Respect Your Mother bins change the recycling habits of young men in the local greek community, those students become more likely to continue recycling routines when they return home and after graduation. Emory says that’s a key part of his mission.

“It really comes down to just being conscious. We’re creatures of habit and so it really is that incremental habit that just becomes a little bit easier if you just understand what you’re doing. It’s energy intensive but as long as you’re sticking with it it just becomes part of daily life.”

But Emory’s daily dedication to zero waste living has created a sort of generational rift in his family, and he’s not alone.

Increased access to media and the web is exposing young people to a constant stream of alarming evidence of environmental degradation as well as helping them rally around sustainability solutions. But, a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center and other subsequent studies show the majority of Millennials believe they are more concerned about the environment and more willing to protect it than their parents and grandparents who’s generations are statistically more likely to deny human causes of climate change.

That’s a recipe for conflict. A fact that became clear to Emory at a recent family gathering.

“We recently had a family reunions up in Wisconsin and they know what I do and they always kind of give me flak about it because they are like ‘oh that prissy, millennial Environmental hippy that went to CU Boulder.’ I asked my uncle, do you have a recycle bin and he was like yeah we recycle into the trash….So, that just tells you everything you need to know about why I do what I do to change those mindsets and to shift that culture,” say Emory.

Another young Boulderite dedicating their life to zero waste living is Meghann Cranford, Atlas Strategist and Campus Coordinator for The Post Action Landfill Network or PLAN.

“We cultivate educate and inspire the student lead zero waste movement. We work with college and university campuses and help them start infrastructure, policy, and communication projects to help initiate zero-waste on their campus. We work with around 200 campuses across the country,” Cranford explains. “I love working with college experience. They’re super excited and passionate about seeing change. I think whether it’s generational or urgency it also could be about just being young and excited about things and it’s really fun to work with them.”

Cranford says young people struggling to get their elders on-board with recycling will have more success convincing them to adopt an eco-friendly lifestyle if they can broaden the conversation from recycling to zero-waste.

Kevin Emory is Founder and Director of Respect Your Mother.

“What’s great about zero waste is that there are different ways that you can tap into the movement and it doesn’t have to just be recycling. And so there are different ways that you can divert waste from the landfill or an incinerator and maybe even more fun ways to talk about family about it. So yeah, maybe your family doesn’t want to recycle but they’re super excited about thrift stores, or mending clothing or something like that and you can find different ways to share your zero waste values that doesn’t have to doesn’t have to strictly be the putting something in a bin recycling,” Cranford explains.

While the youthful tendency to buck the status quo and carve a new path is certainly benefiting the zero waste movement, young people’s ability to successfully communicate with their parents and grandparents and learn how to revive the sustainable behaviors their elders once used out of necessity, could also be of great benefit to the zero waste cause.

Considering the December 2018 prediction from a panel of United Nations scientist that all generations worldwide will face catastrophe in just 12 years if climate change isn’t limited, the success or failure of zero waste movements like Boulder’s to inspire a cross-generational, multi-faceted shift towards sustainable living could mean the world to us all.

KGNU’s coverage of zero waste issues happens throughout the year in partnership with Eco-Cycle, thanks to a grant from Boulder County.