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Protest Dumps Plastic Trays

ROBYN ELIASON never liked the polystyrene lunch trays at her elementary school in New Brighton, Minn. She had seen a news program on the environmental hazards of this disposable material and it was the first thing she noticed when she arrived at the school as a fifth-grader. Robyn told her dad that she didn't like getting a hot lunch at school and having to eat off the trays. He encouraged her to do something about it.

This year, Robyn - now a sixth-grader - and her 12-year-old classmates convinced the school administration to switch to reusable trays for all the district's schools.

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They started a petition early in the school year, but the campaign didn't really catch on until Earth Day rolled around in April. Robyn's class had just studied recycling in social studies, and it seemed an opportune time to pursue the issue.

Gail Carlson, the social studies teacher at Bel Air Elementary School, helped the class write letters to the school board, the superintendent, newspaper editors, and so forth.

When the school board failed to respond speedily enough - ``things don't go fast enough for 12-year-olds,'' says Ms. Carlson - the students galvanized the support of the entire sixth grade. They organized a demonstration at lunch time in the school cafeteria. Almost all the students brought their lunch and boycotted the polystyrene trays.

Seventeen sixth-graders were suspended for refusing to return to class. The next day, instead of going to school, the suspended students cleaned up a local park about a block away from the school.

Once back in school, these youngsters remained undaunted. They showed up at the next school-board meeting, presented their case, and persuaded the board to implement the change district-wide starting this fall.

``I don't think there's any question that [the decision] was accelerated by the children's actions,'' says Burton Nygren, superintendent of Mounds View School District, which administers the elementary school.

Capital expenditures for the change - including the new trays, dishwashers, and other facility modifications - will run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Mr. Nygren. But, he says, ``it isn't only the school district that can teach children, we can learn from them too.''

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The students have come away with an important lesson: They can make a difference. Robyn says: ``I always thought, `Oh, we can try it but I really don't think it will work.' And it did. I think kids should know that if they really believe in something they can change it.''

``I learned that if a group of people pull together anything can be done,'' says Angela Burkhardt, another sixth-grader involved in the campaign. Now, says Angela, she and her friends are planning to launch an effort to convince local stores to use biodegradable shopping bags.

``It's time,'' says Robyn, ``to think about the environment.''

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