Members of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) pledge to adhere to the Principles of Good Practice. As this relates to sustainability, schools agree to strive to “become more environmentally sustainable and can ensure that their graduates are prepared to contribute to a more sustainable world.” So what does it mean when a student with a passion for fighting environmental racism uncovers that his school is unwittingly contributing to the problem? Here at Solebury School, it means that it is time for a change.
Leel Dias ’23 pursues his passions with unfettered tenacity. And his primary passion is environmentalism—namely, fighting environmental racism, the phenomenon where communities of color are more heavily targeted for hazardous industry and pollution. With a giant smile and an unstoppable attitude, the president of the Solebury Environmental Action Corp (SEAC) has spent the last three years identifying and offering solutions to the problem, one Meatless Friday at a time.
As a sophomore, Leel joined Solebury’s Teach2Serve, a program that empowers students to create solutions to social or environmental problems they identify in the world. His cohort conducted research on medical waste incineration regulations to help residents of Bristol, Connecticut, fight a proposal to build a medical waste incinerator in their community. “They were told it was going to change waste to energy,” explains Leel. “They didn't really understand that ‘energy’ meant burning things and spewing all these toxins into the air.”
Residents living near an incinerator have an elevated risk of “all types of cancer…, including stomach, colorectal, liver, renal, pleural and lung cancer, gallbladder and bladder for men, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukemia, and childhood cancer/leukemia,” a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found. Moreover, trash incinerators generate toxic ash and are significantly less efficient than alternative means of waste management. And an analysis by the research group Energy Justice found that 80% of the nation's largest incinerators are located in communities where people of color are disproportionately affected.
The research into trash incinerators (sometimes called “waste to energy facilities”) and their impact on surrounding communities led Leel to look into how trash was being disposed of by Solebury School’s waste hauler. When he found out the waste was being hauled to an incinerator in Chester, Leel went into action. He galvanized his peers in SEAC and Teach2Serve, and with the school’s blessing, they effectively worked with the waste management company to divert the waste to a landfill.
Not content to only fix the problem at Solebury, Leel wanted to raise awareness of this issue at other independent schools. He and Diane Downs P'03 '08 '09, former director of Teach2Serve, presented at “Growing Greener - An Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability Summit,” hosted by Tower Hill School in partnership with the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools (PAIS) and the Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools (ADVIS). They shared Leel’s research and experience fighting against regional trash incinerators. “The waste management decisions that are made matter,” said Leel. He urged regional independent schools to set the trend by embracing zero-waste strategies and abandoning incineration and asked participants to consider renegotiating their waste contract to include a "no burn" clause.
Through Teach2Serve, Leel expanded his connections and worked with a local activist. He helped fight trash incinerators by collecting air and waste databases from state agencies to work on a statewide bill to cut off incinerator subsidies in NJ. He created a national solid waste database for his capstone project which allows users to see where their waste is being landfilled or incinerated. While this data existed at a state level, Leel combined this information and created energyjustice.net/wastedata, a first-of-its-kind national database. He recently presented this research at a TEDx Youth conference.
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