By Sri Nihal Tammana
Have you ever felt completely paralyzed by a problem? When something seems so overwhelming that you can’t even imagine where to begin? Well, the good news is, this feeling is common. In fact, everyone probably experiences this sensation at some point, and it was the same for me.
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by nature, plants, animals, and everything that makes up the world. Like many people, this fascination with the earth transformed into an urge to protect it, but the more I learned about the issues facing the natural world, the more I felt like I couldn’t possibly make a difference. But something happened that changed my perspective and made me realize that it is possible to make an impact.
Back in 2019, right around my 10th birthday, I was watching the news, and a story came on about a big fire in California at a waste disposal plant. The fire was huge, causing millions of dollars worth of damage, and it was all started by a lithium-ion battery. I asked my dad how we could prevent this from happening again, and he said that it could be solved, but that people needed to care enough. That really got to me.
In the following weeks, I saw more stories about batteries causing fires around the world. I started to learn how the chemicals in different kinds of batteries cause terrible pollution when they end up in landfills. I also learned that a staggering 15 billion batteries are thrown in the trash each year globally. I had to try and do something to help.
First, I talked to people in my school and neighborhood. I came to understand that batteries are an essential part of the world and people aren’t just going to give them up. And why should they? They’re incredibly useful. I thought that there had to be a way to prevent them from ending up in landfills.
Shockingly, I also learned that only around one percent of the people I talked to even knew about the issue. There were clearly big problems with access to facilities and education about battery waste.
To try and address the issue, I decided to start small and in a way that would have a direct impact. I began by collecting batteries in my school and community and taking them to free recycling points. Eventually, I brought in so many that I was told I couldn’t use the bins anymore.
At first, I was disappointed, but I quickly realized that I couldn’t expect others to help forever. I clearly wouldn’t be able to use the free recycling points to recycle a meaningful number of batteries. This experience also showed me that people were willing to recycle if they were prompted and that I could personally collect a lot of batteries in a short time.
So, in June 2019, I started my nonprofit organization “Recycle My Battery.” I began by installing free-to-use battery bins in my school in Edison, New Jersey, which were successful right away. I also started running awareness campaigns to educate both adults and young people about the importance of battery recycling.
Fast forward to now, and we’ve collected and recycled more than 265,000 used batteries, keeping them out of landfills. We’ve also reached an estimated 12.5 million people via our campaigns and recruited over 325 volunteer kids from schools globally.
As a result, we’ve been recognized by politicians, business leaders, and other environmental organizations around the world. I’ve been invited to give several prominent media appearances — recently including a live feature on CNN — given speeches, and gotten the opportunity to speak with some very influential people.
Looking ahead, we’re expanding beyond the US and are establishing a presence in several other countries, including Canada, the UAE, and India.
Believe it or not, the reason I’m telling this story isn’t to get you to sign up to Recycle My Battery, or even to care about what happens to discarded batteries. After all, I realize that not everyone has the same kind of obsession with batteries that I do!
What I really want to convince you is that it’s possible to make a difference in the world. Whatever you care about, whatever social impact you think is important, and whatever your vision for a better future, I want you to see that all it requires is taking action, big or small.
Back in 2019, I never believed my little idea about recycling batteries would grow the way it has. All I knew was that I wanted to make a difference, and I started to do something about it. It turns out that this commitment was infectious. People just began listening and joining in.
I truly believe that everyone can be a changemaker — especially young people. So if you care about something, my advice is first to believe that you can change things, and second, to take the first step to make that change happen. You’ll be amazed by where those two small steps could lead.
— Sri Nihal Tammana
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This letter is the first in our “Yours Truly, Changemakers” series when youth innovators write a letter to their peers about why it’s important to lead change at a young age, reflect on the challenges they have overcome, and offer their words of wisdom on making a difference. You can read more articles in the series as they come out here.