LAKE PLACID — For Lake Placid High School senior Ellen Lansing, every day is Earth Day.
The 17-year-old grew up spending summers at her family’s camp on Lake Placid, and she said those times were formative to her love of the lakes and mountains that surrounded her. Now, she’s taking action to protect them.
Each LPHS senior is required to complete a senior project to graduate. For Lansing’s senior project, she’s encouraging local lawmakers to adopt a commercial ban on single-use plastic water bottles in the town of North Elba and the village of Lake Placid. That doesn’t mean bottled water would disappear from store shelves, though. The bottles would just be made out of different materials, like aluminum or cardboard. Think a milk carton, or a soda can filled with water.
“We don’t want to take water away from people at all, that’s not the purpose,” Lansing said. “It’s just changing the way we drink it.”
Lansing is modeling her commercial ban proposal after a similar ban that’s now active in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. If the town and village started a commercial ban on single-use water bottles, Lake Placid would be the first place in the state to ban the water bottles at a commercial level. Lansing thinks the ban would contribute to Lake Placid’s image as a sustainable, nature-based community.
“It would just put us on the map even more,” she said.
Lansing said Lake Placid could act as a leader in sustainable practices for the state; part of the idea behind the ban is that other communities would soon follow suit. She presented her ideas for the ban to the village board of trustees and the town council last month to positive but cautious reception.
“You’re preaching the choir when you’re talking to me,” North Elba Town Councilor Jason Leon told Lansing last month. “… However, it’s hard to picture the process of that because it’s so large in scope and so nebulous, and it seems ultra restrictive so to speak.”
Town councilors discussed the challenges the ban might produce, especially when it comes to area events like the Ironman Lake Placid triathlon. North Elba town Supervisor Derek Doty told Lansing that if she could come up with an infrastructure system to replace single-use plastic water bottles, “then it’s a go.”
Lansing is going before the village board again next week to follow up. She’s determined to see the ban through, even though she plans to leave for college in the fall.
“It started more as my senior project,” she said, “but it’s like, way more than that now.”
Lansing is hitting Main Street with Tiffany O’Brien, her co-worker at The Cottage and a Paul Smith’s College Environmental Studies graduate. O’Brien volunteered to help Lansing push the plastic bottle ban through, and they’re approaching Lake Placid businesses to get signatures of support for the project. They’ve already gotten support from businesses like the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery and Green Goddess Market. Lansing hopes to bring the petition to the town and village boards to help “get the ball rolling” on the ban.
What’s wrong with recycling?
Recycling is often touted as a “green” choice when tossing away a single-use plastic, but Lansing said a lot of recycled plastics never make it to the recycling facility.
The U.S. has historically shipped millions of tons of plastic to China each year, but in 2018, China’s National Sword policy banned most plastic imports that weren’t up to more stringent policies. The U.S. rerouted its plastics to other, smaller countries with lower-paid workers and more lax environmental rules, but subsequent bans in some of those countries have caused a back-up in recyclables here.
Because the U.S. relied on China to recycle its plastics for so many years, it never developed a system strong enough to handle the recycling that’s sticking around. But the problem existed before China’s ban. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 94.2 million of the 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste generated by Americans in 2017 were recycled or composted, and only 8% of that waste was plastics. Lansing said that the linear production of waste that happens when we buy single-use plastics needs to stop, and she thinks plastic water bottles is a good place to start.
Lansing said people can take steps to reduce their plastic use, like using tote bags at the grocery store and buying secondhand or vintage clothes instead of supporting fast fashion, but she’s focusing on the commercial water bottle ban because she doesn’t think the responsibility of plastic waste should be placed on individual consumers.
She wants to shift the focus from blaming the consumer to hitting plastic companies where it hurts.
“It’s time to move on and go for the big kahunas,” she said.
Lansing isn’t new to the environmental scene. She’s been involved with the LPHS Environmental Club since she was in middle school, and she spearheads the club’s composting program — Placid Planet — along with fellow senior Astrid Livesey. Lansing is also part of the Wild Center’s Youth Climate Program in Tupper Lake. In the last two months, she and Livesey have spoken at a climate summit in the Catskills and a virtual climate summit about their efforts with the school’s compost program. This summer, Lansing said she and Livesey will be featured in the Wild Center’s new Climate Solutions exhibit.
Lansing was accepted to Columbia University’s Environmental Sciences program this year. She’s still waiting to hear about financial aid, but she hopes to make Columbia her next stop. No matter where she goes, though, she said she’ll take her passion for the environment with her.
“That passion (has) just kept growing and growing as the years went on,” she said. “Now I can’t see my life without it.”