Every year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gives special recognition and a presidential plaque to the President’s Environmental Youth Award regional winners. This year, among the many winners whose outstanding environmental projects have been recognized, there are at least four Indian American students.

The national award is presented each year to K-12 students who demonstrate the initiative, creativity, and problem-solving skills needed to address environmental problems and find sustainable solutions.

Nebraska-based 6th grader Aryan Mulgaokar and his brother, kindergartener Om, have been awarded for their project, “REVIVE Go Green — Reuse and Recycling of Pencils.”

After realizing how many of their partially used pencils were left over each year, the Indian American brothers decided to implement a project to promote environmental awareness and a habit of reusing and recycling school supplies, like pencils. The students named their project “REVIVE Go Green” to reflect the completion of the life cycle of a pencil, when composted pencils can be used to grow or revive new trees.

After learning that all parts of a wooden pencil can be recycled as compost, the brothers, with some help from school staff and a local nursery, set up a pencil recycling and composting program. All classes collected pencil shavings and pencil stubs, and the nursery recycled them into compost. In addition, they spent time after school each day sharpening hundreds of dull pencils for classes to reuse.

The brothers inspired students in other grades to become involved in the club. On the last day of school, they collected pencils and were able to provide approximately 4,000 useable pencils for the next year’s school supplies. Though the brothers won the PEYA regional award for EPA Region 7, they recently moved to New Jersey, where they plan on expanding the project to their new school district.

Thirteen-year-old Shreya Ramachandran, of Fremont, Calif., will receive the honor for her study of grey water use in water conservation.

Having seen firsthand the effects of drought in California and in India, high-schooler Ramachandran formed “The Grey Water Project” to encourage people to conserve and reuse water. Over three years of research into water conservation, the Indian American student has particularly focused on the possibility of reusing grey water, which is lightly used water, especially from laundry.

After finding that many commercial laundry detergents have harmful chemicals that can be detrimental to soil, plants, and aquatic life, Ramachandran, a student at Stratford School, tested to see if grey water from soap nuts — a natural laundry detergent derived from the Indian soap berry — could be used as irrigation water without harming the environment. She tested the effects of soap nut grey water on aquatic life, soil and plants, using multiple tests and comparing grass exposed to regular water, soap-nut grey water, organic and non-organic detergent grey water. She found that soap nut grey water was beneficial to plant growth and cost less than an organic detergent.

Ramachandran, through the project and social media, reaches out to her community to educate people about water conservation. She has presented at her school and local elementary schools, as well as at a local water board. For her efforts, she has been recognized with numerous awards at science fairs and competitions.

Arya Bairat, an Indian American student from Connecticut, is also part of a group of 9th graders who have won the regional award for EPA Region 1 with their project, “Synthesis of Low Cost, Biodegradable Masks/Bags Using Novel Material Combinations: A Sustainability Project.”

The students, who call themselves “PKN,” were particularly concerned about air pollution and the large amount of petroleum-based plastics filling landfills in their home community in Connecticut and abroad. After noting people’s use of inexpensive masks to filter out particulate matter in the air and the waste created by the disposal of these masks, they developed a low-cost biodegradable plastic using pumpkin. The team continues to explore options to commercially distribute masks made from this cost-efficient bioplastic.

The PKN team is also exploring opportunities to donate future profits to an organization working to prevent suicide among Indian farmers.

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