By Kevin Thranow
Growing up on the Rosebud Reservation, tribal member and St. Francis Indian School graduate Jessica Henry didn’t think about recycling much. Which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s spent some time here - recycling just isn’t on too many people’s priority lists.
But after spending two years at the University of Minnesota Morris as a biology major, then transferring to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies, Jessica realized that recycling was part of her identity as an indigenous tribal member. She discovered that she felt very deeply about the impact that waste has on Mother Earth.
With Mother Earth on her mind, Jessica decided that she would do her senior project on recycling; specifically, trying to test methods that might encourage people to recycle more. It’s long been known that rates of recycling improve when recycling is easy, convenient, and simple. Jessica contemplated these principles and came up with an idea that the college administration was willing to implement at test locations on campus, Jones and Chemistry halls.
Instead of waste and recycling receptacles being placed randomly in classrooms, hallways, and building entrances, Jessica consolidated the bins in centralized locations in each building, with all of the cans well-labeled and clustered together. Students and faculty didn’t have to throw out trash in one location and then hunt for a recycling container - they were all in one place and convenient to use. Removing small garbage cans from classrooms had a net effect of directing people to the new staging areas, and made building custodian’s jobs easier since they didn’t have to go to each individual room.
The somewhat less glamorous part of the experiment was counting all of the items in the bins by hand, but by doing so Jessica was able to determine that people were diverting over 50 more items a week from landfills compared to her control period.
Because the set-up is so simple, it can easily be replicated in a wide variety of environments, from schools and businesses to government offices and shopping malls. “It’s fairly easy, and I found it to be pretty impactful,” said Jessica.
An article on her project that appeared in the Durango Herald noted that students surveyed after the experiment had overall positive feelings about recycling. Prior to the project, they simply didn’t know where they could take their recyclables.
Jessica will present her data to the college and hopes that they continue it as standard practice. She also plans to continue educating others about recycling, including how to sort and prepare items before dropping them in a bin. She noted that China was once the leading market for American-generated recyclables, but that a change in policy means that the U.S. is going to have to do more recycling domestically.
Proud mom Hope Reynolds, who works for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Treasurer’s Office, said that Jessica was always a good role model and graduated from SFIS in 2014 as valedictorian. Since then, she’s been on the Dean’s List at UM and Fort Lewis. This April, Jessica will be the first person in her family to graduate college. Currently, Jessica is considering post-graduate studies in Environmental Sciences and Sustainability at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, but for now she’s looking forward to graduating and spending some time with her family.