Cloquet High School senior Josh South wants to do his part in minimizing his footprint on the planet while at school, so he bought himself and a few of his friends reusable trays to use when eating cafeteria lunch in an effort to avoid single-use trays.

“A popular thing to do is take two styrofoam trays because it uses extra support,” South said. “Noticing that, I thought there was so much being thrown away just at our school and so much that could be changed that I would love to help with.”

Cloquet High School has an open-campus lunch policy for juniors and seniors, meaning they can leave campus for lunch. If they stay for school lunch, they have to use single-use trays and silverware, while ninth and 10th graders use reusable utensils and trays.

While students around the world are organizing or planning to attend climate strikes in or near their cities Friday, Sept. 20, including in Duluth, South said he believes his efforts in the growing movement of young people trying to make change are best spent making a difference in his own school. So that’s what he’s trying to do.

As president of his school’s environmental club, South and about 20 other students involved in the organization this year are brainstorming possible projects to pursue that will make a difference.

“A lot of the stuff we come up with probably won’t be put in place this year or maybe even next year,” South said. “But if we create a path now toward better solutions with things like the trays and silverware ... hopefully in the next few years, our school can become a lot more eco-friendly and set on the right track toward a better environmental future.”

Every year, students in the club apply for a grant through Carlton County’s Green Schools Project that aims to reduce waste and increase recycling in schools around the county. In past years, the club’s successes have included the installation of water bottle filling stations as well as getting compost and recycling bins in the lunchroom.

South became involved in environmental club as a sophomore and has noticed an uptick in interested students over the past couple years. His interests in issues surrounding climate and environment started elevating the more he read in the news about how the issues have become politicized.

“I thought it was important to take control of what was happening ... instead of just agree with someone or nod by head.”

“It baffles my mind,” South said. “How is this being put on a political scale when this is so noticeably affecting our world and our Earth? Stuff should be done right away.”

At the same time, South recognizes that’s easier said than done, but hopes a societal shift will happen in which people focus less on money and immediate financial gain and more on what’s going to benefit the country in the long run.

Senior and environmental club member Caleb Swanson decided to join environmental club last year so he could put his convictions into action.

“I thought it was important to take control of what was happening around me and try to make an actual difference instead of just agree with someone or nod my head,” Swanson said.

Cloquet High School seniors Evan McWilliams (left), Josh South (center) and Caleb Swanson (right) eat from their own reusable trays during their open campus lunch. Jamie Lund / Pine Journal
Cloquet High School seniors Evan McWilliams (left), Josh South (center) and Caleb Swanson (right) eat from their own reusable trays during their open campus lunch. Jamie Lund / Pine Journal

Older adults, Swanson said, often don’t see where young people are coming in conversations about the climate crisis because they don’t understand the fear that comes with having so many years left to live on the planet.

“They obviously care, but it’s not the same because we’re going to live longer,” Swanson said. “It’s our world now and they can just kind of rebut our ideas because they’re in charge and they just don’t have the same feeling.”

Evan McWilliams, also a senior and environmental club member, said while he’s scared and frustrated that systematic action isn’t being taken to address humanity's effect on the climate crisis, he believes it’s important to resist the tendency to let that change the way young people they plan for the future.

After graduating high school in the spring, McWilliams wants to study some kind of engineering. He hopes to contribute to designs and inventions that increase efficiency and reduce humanity's carbon footprint.

“I feel like we definitely need to get out of that mindset and take it upon ourselves,” McWilliams said. “I want to raise a family. What can I do to make sure they have a world to live in?"