Des Plaines student wins scholarship for enviromental cleanup coalition
While walking a trail around Big Bend Lake in Des Plaines one day, then-high school senior Natalia Barna noticed just how much trash littered the otherwise natural area.
"I love biking and walking in the forest preserves where I live because Cook County has a lot of them," Barna said. "If you go more into the forest, you start noticing how much trash there is everywhere, especially the part of the forest that's near the road because people just throw things out of their car. I thought that was honestly really sad."
What started with her recruiting some friends to help with a few cleanups around her hometown snowballed into an environmental coalition spanning three different high schools: Maine West, Maine South and Maine East, from where Barna graduated.
Barna, now a freshman at Northwestern University, recently received a national scholarship for her efforts in founding the Maine Township Environmental Coalition. The group focuses on cleanups through its parent organization, Clean Up Give Back, along with donation drives.
"I thought it would be really cool if I were to start a chapter for my school, because I'm cleaning up a forest and that can also be used for service hours," Barna said. "It's a fulfilling, small thing to do. You can go outside and enjoy the weather while also helping keep our communities beautiful."
One of eight Clean Up Give Back chapters, such as groups in Palatine, Oak Park and Elmhurst, the coalition conducts cleanups throughout the year, including in the winter. The group hosted a cleanup at Chippewa Woods in Park Ridge this February, even collecting a few tires and a mattress.
While Barna said she feels there's more awareness in her generation of the environmental state of the world, "we still have a long way to go."
"One of the first cleanups we ever did as a club was cleaning up the football stadium at my school after a football game - and it was terrible," she said. "People just left their food and their drinks all over the stands, and also on the grass around our school. That made me realize we still have a long way to go with educating people about the potential harm that they're doing to the environment."
Barna said she hopes more organizations like the coalition continue to sprout, highlighting how littered the environment is and inspiring change.
"Until I started MTEC, I never really paid attention to how much trash there was," she said. "This really opened my eyes."
Barna was among 10 students nationwide to recently win the Your Personal Purpose Scholarship, awarded by the National Society of High School Scholars Foundation. The scholarship, which recognizes students for their statements on the positive impact they make in their communities, amounts to $10,000 over four years. Alongside the coalition, the scholarship recognized Barna's efforts in tree planting on campus, as well, an initiative she pursued through Maine East's Lyceum enrichment program. Barna also advocated for the introduction of composting in the district, meeting with administration officials, school board members and local environmental group Go Green Park Ridge.
"Something that just stuck out to me was the fact that other high schools have composting implemented in their cafeteria," Barna said. "I was thinking, 'Why doesn't Maine East have that?' Because if you're ever in the lunchroom, you see how much food actually gets thrown away. Entire meals just get thrown in the trash. If we could somehow do composting instead, that would definitely help a lot with climate change."
When organic waste like food decomposes in a landfill, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas that holds more than 25 times more warming power than carbon dioxide. As a result, landfill methane is a major contributor to climate change.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an estimated 30% to 40% of the nation's food supply goes to waste.
Following Barna's discussions with school officials, the district is implementing commercial composting in the cafeteria and culinary spaces during the current school year.
Now led by Maine East Junior Saugat Choudhary, the Maine Township Environmental Coalition is going strong after Barna's departure, totaling about 22 regular members.
"Our main goal is through drives and physical volunteering such as cleanups, we want to not only make our environment better, but we want to educate. We want to make a cleaner, healthier and greener environment," Choudhary said.
The group most recently held a plastic bag drive, collecting 85 pounds of plastic bags for recycling.
Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see dailyherald.com/rfa.