By Joshua Rosenau
It was hard for some students to believe, an era when the Environmental Protection Agency did not exist, and many people treated the outdoors as an open garbage pit.
"When your parents were little children, there was not an EPA, and they realized that we were not taking care -- we were throwing garbage out into the backyard, we were letting all sorts of chemicals flow into the rivers, we were putting all sorts of dirty things in the air -- and that has changed," Rep. Rush Holt (D-Hopewell) said to a shocked student body at the Benjamin Franklin Elementary School Tuesday.
Students at the school held a belated Earth Day celebration, welcoming national and international officials who praised their efforts to live with greater respect for the environment.
Since the start of the 2011 academic year, students from pre-kindergarten to third grade have participated in the Benjamin Franklin EPA, an environmental education program modeled after the federal agency, which was established in 1970.
"In New Jersey, where you guys live, I work to protect the water and the air and the trees," said Melissa Dimas, international affairs coordinator for the EPA's regional office.
"Because you're making my job so much easier, I wanted to give you a round of applause."
Classes in each grade have focused on one aspect of the school's resources, with first-graders working to reduce wasting water, second-graders recycling and reusing cardboard and third-graders keeping a watchful eye on lights and electronics to reduce energy consumption.
As a feature of the program, each grade appoints a pair of EPA representatives, one girl and one boy, who are designated to check on the efforts of other classes, second-grader and current "EPA Rep." Liam Thompson said.
"We do recycling every Thursday. We do my classroom first, then the next one," he said. Pointing to some plastic bins, he said, "We bring them down over there next to the lunch room and pull them in. They look like trash cans, but they're for recycling. Usually we do milk cartons," Thompson said. "Then we collect from the library, the gym, Miss Macheda's and Miss Saphire's." The students fill the empty containers with soil, turning pieces of trash into planters for seed gardens.
While the school's children worked to manage their own environmental impact in Lawrence, students of the JianAn Elementary School in Taiwan also took steps to preserve the environment by collecting trash from a nearby river and pulling the plug on the school's electricity.
Students from the two schools discussed their efforts as part of a collaborative mirrored after one between the Taiwanese EPA and our own.
The Taiwanese government began a formal partnership with the U.S. EPA in 1986, Vincent Jing-Yen Liu, deputy director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, said.
"There are many students equally smart, equally talented, and equally committed to work hard to save the earth," Liu said. "So I am here today to let you know how much we are happy to see this cooperation start from the young generation."
Capping off the day's celebration, principal Christopher Turnbull, Liu, representatives from the school's parent teacher council, and Michelle DePass, who serves as the EPA's assistant administrator for the Office of International and Tribal Affairs, broke ground in the school's closed courtyard for a contemplative space.
Over the weekend the area will be transformed into a space for science, nature arts and pondering, Turnbull said. The so-called "snap space" will feature a garden of native plants, a compost corner and a birdhouse section, he said.