With the spring season finally upon us, advocates for environmental protection and conservation converged on the Center Bridge at JJC to promote activism and celebrate Earth Day.
The holiday has been observed since 1970, and its importance is a testament to our commitment and responsibility to minimize the damage caused to the environment.
Groups represented by both students and community members set up booths and kiosks with informative graphics and demonstration pieces.
On the bridge’s south side, Student Government sponsored a Recycled Art Show Recycled Art Show, which displayed sculpted works of art made entirely of recycled and left over items.
Students voted on the best sculpture and were offered the chance to compete in an environmental trivia wheel, where winners received "Earth Day at JJC" tee-shirts.
The opposite side of the bridge held eight separate booths run by student clubs, volunteer and advocacy groups, and informative presentations.
"I think we need to realize were all connected," said Maria Rafac, the sustainability coordinator for the event and professor at the Technical Department.
The student group, Garbage to Recycle (GTR), made a splash by unveiling and promoting their mission to reduce the amount of recyclable items that end up in landfill containers.
Gathered from the campus’s comingle and trash containers, the group collects misplaced recyclables and collects them in a large specially built retainer, located outdoors near the cafeteria.
"It’s amazing how many (recyclables) actually end up in trash versus the recycler when they’re right next to each other," said Steven Mark of GTR.
The group is working to partner PepsiCo and their Dream Machine initiative, which individuals and their school for recycling into special Dream Machine kiosks.
Other groups such as Helpers of Mother Earth, (HOME), used the forum to recruit members to their all-volunteer conservation group who engage in a simple, yet fundamentally important mission: picking up litter.
But there’s nothing lightweight about the scale of litter HOME has dealt with.
Group organizer, Virgil Kemp, detailed the group’s efforts at targeting areas in Joliet where huge amounts of dumped trash have turned certain areas into outdoor homeless shelters.
One, located near Washington Street and Miller Avenue, had been occupied homeless for years, who utilized debris from construction sites or building renovations.
The location, shamefully close to Joliet’s downtown area, was "A block south of the police station, two blocks south of city hall," Kemp stressed, "Could you believe it?"
Efforts by HOME have cleared most of the litter in the area away, but it was not easy:
"It took us pretty close to a year to get everything," said Kemp, "and the thing is, underneath one layer is another layer, and then another layer under that."
"A lot of people don’t know it’s that bad because they’re not out. They’re in their car, in their air conditioning, and they just don’t realize how bad it is."
But Kemp holds no ill-will about the situation, or people that litter, I like what I do, it’s my contribution to society," he said.
"I don’t have any judgments against people; I don’t really even care that much why it gets there."
For Kemp, it’s more important to volunteer and participate than it is to squabble over who’s responsible for the trash, to use the groups activism as a bully pulpit.
Made up of entirely volunteers, Kemp said that, "We don’t have any political views, we don’t take donations, we don’t have membership fees we don’t get grants or anything like that."
Even a complementary tee-shirt stretches their budget. But despite this, HOME has performed over 250 cleanups in Joliet over the past five years.
"And our idea is if everybody spent two hours in the spring and two hours in the fall, there would be no litter," said Kemp plainly.
Joliet’s Department of Public Utilities brought a large scale model that illustrated the problems that storm runoff does to the areas rivers.
"We’re trying to educate the public to reduce the amount of pollution that goes into our drainage system," said David Ortiz of Joliet’s Public Utilities.
"We are accelerating the amount of runoff, and a lot of it is because of what we do with our lawns with watering with fertilizers and other treatments that eventually make their way into the drain system."
Partnering with the EPA, the city is working to promote education about the area’s water ways, and work towards minimizing our ecological footprint.
"We’re just promoting education. Many people don’t know that our storm drainage is part of our ecosystem."
"We recommend that people avoid washing our cars on paved surface so that the runoff soaks into the ground before it runs off into the street drainage."
The city was also promoting a new program wherein residents are eligible to receive a free rain collection barrel, which when utilized, promote water conservation.
Perhaps the most proactive organization present was Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, (CARE), a group that’s taken legal measures to ensure public safety from illegal pollution, specifically with regulations on coal power plant pollutants, namely coal ash, a highly toxic byproduct of coal burning.
For years leftover coal ash, which contains harmful chemicals like lead, arsenic, manganese and cyanide, was thrown into man made reservoirs made by two Joliet area coal plants, risking contamination of the area’s water tablet and wells.
With new proposed laws on coal ash by the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IEPA), CARE plans to attend a public hearing in order to voice their concern, specifically about potential loopholes that coal companies may exploit.
What spurred CARE into being was in 1995 when the New Avenue Texaco Plant was closing their facilities, with no plans of removing the harmful pollutants the company left behind, hoping to "Just walk away," according to Randy Juras, a representative from CARE.
The company said "it’s not in our business plan. So the CARE group decided they were going to press for remediation," to force the company to clean up the site, said Juras.
Eventually the group got the site to be declared a hazardous waste site, "and it has since them been remediated."
Juras stressed the power that citizens have through voting holds the potential for positive changes in the environment, particularly among younger voters.
While attending the first public meeting on fracking in Springfield, Juras was surprised at the number of younger adults who turned out.
"I’d say 60 to 70 percent of the people that were there were college students and they were sincere and it wasn’t like there weren’t anything to do," said Juras, rather they wanted their voices heard, and were adamant about protecting the environment.
"It stands to reason, that in places like North Carolina, where they have a huge problem with coal ash, they don’t want young people to vote."
Aware that younger people may have little concern over the environment; Juras described his son, who was such an example. Now 32 years old and a father, "He thinks about this now," Juras said with a chuckle.
"And that’s what’s going to happen; that’s the natural evolution. If we are to make any changes long-term, we have to catch your (young people) imagination," and work to help them see things differently.
"You can take two approaches: you can depress yourself about it, or you can say, "Screw it," I’m going to do something about it."
"Sustainability is about you, it’s about your kids and it’s about your future," said Rafac, who was busy encouraging students to stop and tour the displays.
With the help of students and local groups like HOME and CARE, Rafac has been organizing the Earth Day event on campus for over five years.
Central to her message is to emphasize the impact that individual and personal contributions have on the environment, especially among young people.
"And I don’t care how you want to package it, or what political group you attach to it, it’s still about you."