The Body Burden
Jessica Assaf was thirteen years old when she read in her local newspaper that the breast cancer rates in her community had risen 60 percent in eight years. She was compelled to find the cause of the high cancer rates, so she got involved with the Marin Cancer Project. She was shocked to learn that unlike the food and drug industry, the cosmetic industry is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. In fact, the products individuals use on a daily basis contain toxic chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, and infertility. In response to this problem, Jessica was one of the five founding members of Teens for Safe Cosmetics, a teen-led coalition striving to ban toxic chemicals from cosmetics and personal care products.
Over the course of four years, Teens for Safe Cosmetics hosted annual teen summits and monthly advocacy events and helped pass a proposed bill into law. Drafted by a state legislator, SB484, a bill requiring cosmetic manufacturers to disclose carcinogenic ingredients to the public, was the first piece of legislation regulating the cosmetic industry. Teens for Safe Cosmetics held press conferences and went to the state capitol four times to meet with legislators and gain support for the passage of this bill. Although the cosmetic industry spent millions of dollars in lobbying efforts to oppose the legislation, SB484 was signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in October of 2005.
Next, the teens returned to the state capital to lobby for the Toxic Toys Bill, to ban phthalates from children’s toys and baby bottle nipples. Phthalates, which are added to plastics to make them more durable and flexible, are considered a health risk and are being phased out of products in Europe and the United States. When Jessica learned that Governor Schwarzenegger intended to veto the bill, she and her friends lobbied him directly, educating him about the health impacts. This new bill became law in October 2007. Helping pass two state laws reinforced for Jessica the idea that any individual, regardless of age or experience, can make a difference.
“Youth should know that off icials in Congress are waiting to hear from us. We are the ‘good guys’ because we are so motivated to make positive social change.”
Sometimes elected officials aren’t willing to meet with you on your issue, or refuse to take action after repeated meetings. When this is the case, you can look to “bird-dogging” opportunities to embarrass them or encourage them to do the right thing in front of a wider audience.
So Easy Even Kids Can Do It
When Alex Lin was just eleven years old, he heard in the news about the growing e-waste crisis. E-waste refers to electronic equipment—like computers—bound for the waste stream. This equipment often contains toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury. If disposed of improperly, these metals can cause serious human health problems like permanent brain damage, cancer, and damage to the nervous and immune systems.
So Alex joined with his friends to hold a recycling drive to collect the buildup of e-waste in his small hometown of Westerly, Rhode Island. They contacted the manager of a local recycling company. Because the company stood to gain revenue from breaking down and selling the electronics, the company was happy to send an eighteen-wheeler truck to pick up the electronics that the recycling drive brought in. In a single day, the team collected two full truckloads of e-waste.
But Alex knew that a one-day e-waste drive wasn’t enough to solve the problem. His team needed to come up with an efficient way to keep a recycling container available to the community at all times. So Alex set up a partnership with the same recycling company, which installed a permanent receptacle for e-waste and collected more than three hundred thousand pounds of e-waste in the first few years, equal to the weight of about seventy-five SUVs.
After persuading his school superintendent to make refurbishing donated computers part of his school’s computer curriculum, Alex and his team worked with the computer classes to reclaim and rebuild computers donated by students and their families. The school restored and distributed over three hundred computers, and Alex’s team set up computer centers in Rhode Island, Mexico, Kenya, Cameroon, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. “Is it enough?” Alex wondered. His group decided it wasn’t. As the next step in the campaign, the group started working with legislators on proposed e-waste legislation for the state of Rhode Island. The bill had been in the works for four years, and each year it had failed to pass. Alex and his team reevaluated the bill’s positive and negative points and came to the conclusion that the bill was too complicated.
Alex drafted a sample resolution to ban the dumping of e-waste and worked with city officials in Westerly to adopt the resolution. Those officials sent their resolution to the state legislators, who revised their own bill based on its language. The team spent an entire spring lobbying; they got petitions signed, made presentations to community groups, and testified several times at the Rhode Island State House. Finally, victory! In July 2006, Rhode Island became the fourth state in the nation to adopt a bill requiring proper disposal of electronic waste.
“One of our greatest strengths when working with legislation was a working model. So we could go to the state and say, ‘Hey. This works. It’s so easy even kids can do it.’”
Alex was only eleven when he began his project and thirteen when the legislation was passed. Pretty impressive, no? As you can see from Alex’s story, a small handful of youth activists with the right allies have the power to shape laws. You can make it easier for people to do the right thing than to do the wrong thing. For example, imagine the uproar if people were allowed to buy electronics only one day out of the year. In some places, you can recycle electronics only one day out of the year. We need to make it just as easy for people to recycle toxic products as it is for them to buy them. Laws and public policy are one of the best strategies for changing the status quo.
Reprinted with permission from The Young Activist’s Guide to Building a Green Movement and Changing the World. Copyright © 2011 by Sharon J. Smith and the Earth Island Institute, Inc., Ten Speed Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, Berkeley, CA.