WEST ORANGE, NJ — Earth Hour isn’t happening until March 28, but West Orange kicked it off two weeks early at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, with West Orange High School and Liberty Middle School students showing off their environmentally friendly projects on March 11. The presentations were held in advance of Earth Hour, a global event encouraged by the World Wildlife Federation to raise awareness about conservation and climate change, during which lights around the world will be turned off for 60 minutes.
“We want to call attention to climate change,” West Orange Environmental Commission Chairman Mike Brick said at the event. “Nature provides us with food and water and is one of our strongest allies against climate change. Everyone can do something. Cut down on garbage, recycle, don’t buy frivolous products and vote for politicians who believe in climate change.”
Assemblyman John McKeon was also at the event and spoke about the statewide plastic bag ban of which he has been a proponent, but which has not been passed in the state assembly yet. Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed a bill that would have imposed a five-cent fee on plastic and paper bags in 2018, saying the restrictions weren’t strict enough. McKeon cited a California law that banned thin plastic bags in 2014.
“What they’ve learned in California is using the thicker and more reusable plastic bags hasn’t had the effect they thought,” he said at the event. “They just throw those bags out. All that does is keep the problem. So what we’re looking at is eliminating them completely, and paper bags. I’m cautiously optimistic, especially with our brethren in New York putting a ban into effect, that we can put something on the governor’s desk in mid-April.”
McKeon encouraged residents to extend Earth Hour and Earth Day events past the hour and the full day they last.
“Think about what you wear, think about what you eat,” he said. “These are things that we can think about individually to make a difference. Hopefully we can take a step back and find our commonalities to come up with a solution.”
Liberty Middle School seventh-grader Jennifer Fernandez was at the event to talk about her Thomas Edison Pitch Contest project, which she and other students have been working on in their science class. The contest, offered by the Edison Innovation Foundation, encourages students to submit projects that would make the world a brighter place.
The LMS students want to make a weighted vest to help with anxiety, which Fernandez said can often be caused by climate change.
“We want to make a weighted vest with a heart monitor,” Fernandez said at the event, “that will play music when the heart rate picks up. A lot of young people now have anxiety, and a lot of older people, too. This will hopefully put some anxiety at ease.”
LMS science teacher Vince DeJesus encouraged youth participation in climate protests.
“They are our hope,” DeJesus said at the event. “We need more of them, kids whose eyes are open. They are the ones who are going to fix the problem and they’ve already started. You guys are our last, best hope. So keep it up.”
WOHS students then presented their plans for a solar-powered bus shelter, a project that has been in the works for the last two years. Started by 2019 WOHS graduates Mya Bembry and Bryce Nelms, the idea for a shelter with solar-powered lights and cell phone–charging stations has been taken over by junior Patryck Robson, senior Alyssa Stone, senior Keith Lakeman and junior Andrew Miller. Bembry and Nelms wanted to build the shelter because students, especially athletes, have nowhere to wait for a ride home when the school is closed after late practices, and if their phone battery is running low they can’t contact anyone. There’s also nothing to protect students from rain.
“The struggles that Mya and Bryce had definitely resonated with me,” Robson said at the event. “I’ve often been stuck with no phone. We don’t have a bus shelter and we needed to have a shelter from the rain for when we wait outside, which we often do.”
“I’ve stayed late enough to know that waiting outside is a hassle, especially when you don’t have access to the building after a certain time,” she said at the meeting.
The WOHS students got an old bus shelter from NJ Transit that was no longer being used, and took it apart to figure out how to build seating and install electrical elements and solar panels. They used computer design programs to add WOHS logos to the shelter. All of the work was done in class and during the students’ lunch periods.
Lakeman said all that’s left to do is work with the woodshop students on building benches, installing the electrical elements and choosing a location. They’re down to two possible sites behind the WOHS building.
Brick commended the students on their work and encouraged residents to follow their example.
“It could be as simple as changing the light bulbs in your house to be more efficient,” he said. “It could be sealing cracks in your house to use less heat. It could be getting energy efficient appliances.”
During Earth Hour on Saturday, March 28, from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m., all West Orange residents are encouraged to turn off their lights to help raise awareness for conservation and environmentalism.
Photos by Amanda Valentovic