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'Reduce, Reuse, Rethink': A Colorado teen's approach to recycling

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DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. — "I think especially with young people, we have innovative ideas for the future,” said Maya Ayres. “We have, like, a fresh look on things."

In December of last year, Ayres, a 14-year-old Douglas County High School student, presented a TED talk at the TEDxCherryCreek event. Her informative speech was about the importance of recycling. Her slogan was “Reduce. Reuse. Rethink,” a spin-off of the popular mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle.”

Just because something is technically recyclable  does not mean that recycling it is always the best option, Ayres explained. The energy used to recycle certain plastics can be more than the energy saved.

“I believe the real issue of plastic pollution isn’t the manufacturing of it, but it is that humans do not know how to properly dispose of that plastic we create for ourselves,” Ayres said in her TED talk, which you can watch here. “That is the issue. And we know this because plastic is ending up everywhere around us. Recycling isn’t working nearly as well as it should be.”

Colorado Voices

Reduce. Reuse. Rethink.

In 2018, Americans generated more than 35 million tons of plastics — about six times the weight of the Pyramid of Giza — yet less than nine percent of that plastic was recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

[Related: Colorado is bad at recycling. Why?]

Many people, Ayres continued, are not familiar with the descriptions written on the back of plastic items that detail the item’s thickness and recyclability. Because of the complexities of recycling labeling, Ayres said there is often an "out of sight, out of mind" mindset where once someone throws a paper plate or cardboard cup in a recycling bin, they forget about it. This phenomenon is known as “wish-cycling,” in which someone disposes of an item in the hopes that it will be recycled.

The University of Colorado says wish-cycling can lead to unrecyclable materials being mixed with recyclable materials, which can damage machines that are difficult and dangerous to fix, as well as “force otherwise usable material to the landfill.”

[EPA: Frequent questions on recycling]

The inspiration behind Ayres' journey to inform her community and the world about recycling started when she was in the fifth grade. Ayres and her classmates participated in a “bluebird experiment” project. As part of the project, Ayres’ class walked around their neighborhood and observed local bluebirds, whose habitats have been threatened by development in recent years. During the experiment, she noticed that there was plastic woven into the birds' nests. It was the first time Ayres realized how harmful plastic waste could be. 

"That was really tough to see because, I mean, no one feels good when they know that they are directly harming another living being. So that's when I really started to think about, ‘OK well, that piece of plastic in their nest could have been mine,’" Ayres recalled. "And so, when you are directly relating it to yourself, it really made me reflect about how I treat my surroundings and what causes those issues like that in our world."

[Related: For the first time, researchers find microplastics deep in the lungs of living people]

Something Ayres found interesting about her experience, from the bluebird project to the TED talk, was how it related to a concept she learned from her Jewish upbringing: at religious school, Ayres learned of the phrase "Tikkun Olam," meaning "repair the world."

"For me I really started to reflect this concept because I wanted to find what fulfills me, and so repairing the world and finding ways to help other people is what makes me happy,” she said.

A humble Ayres also expressed that many of her peers have congratulated her on her TED talk, but she does not want people to think of her, as she said, "on a different level" than them. She hopes that expressing herself encourages other young people to become passionate about something and share their voice, no matter the size of their platform.

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