‘Heal the world we live in, save it for our children’ Those who’ve lived through the nineties will remember this iconic refrain to Michael Jackson’s 1991 ballad Heal the World.
In the 26 years since, the generations that first heard the song haven’t done much to keep our blue planet healthy: polar ice caps have melted more in the last 20 years than in the last 10,000 years according to a study by Nasa; the ozone layer is steadily depleting over populated areas of the world according to research published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, and our oceans will soon have more plastic than fish – the Great Pacific Garbage patch, an accumulation of plastic debris in the North Pacific Ocean that’s roughly twice the size of Texas.
With adults failing to do the saving, children have stepped up to the plate. Friday talk to three eco-conscious UAE youngsters who’ve launched green initiatives and sustainable ideas to save the world and the human race’s future.
Humaid Habeeb, 19, former student of Our English High School Boys, Sharjah, currently an MBBS student at Kilpauk Medical College, Chennai
Few recognise the power of children to engineer change than Humaid. The 19-year-old founded the environmental and humanitarian youth group called Green Globe in 2010 after he and a group of friends visited labour accommodations around the country to promote anti-smoking awareness.
‘My mother, Yasmine who’s an active social worker and my biggest inspiration, enlisted us to spread her message,’ he says. ‘We’d ask workers on the spot who was ready to quit smoking and at least one or two would agree.
The smoking awareness campaign initiated Humaid’s interest into environmentalism. ‘Smoking and the environment go hand-in-hand – while the smoke pollutes the air the cigarette butts that litter the ground are one of the largest pollutants of soil.’
He realised that adults sat up and took notice when children spoke about issues forcefully. ‘We learnt that during the anti-smoking awareness drive. That was our mission, to encourage kids who could then influence adults to take action,’ he explains. The 700-member group, which is now run by Humaid’s younger brother Harith since Humaid moved to India to study medicine last year, has translated Humaid’s vision through a host of eco-friendly campaigns and initiatives in the last seven years. ‘We’ve organised beach clean-ups, tree plantations in landfills, food distribution drives and awareness campaigns on breast cancer and smoking,’ Humaid says, of the 71 different environmental and humanitarian events Green Globe has organised. ‘We’re also the official volunteers for the annual Earth Day walkathons organised by the Sharjah and Dubai municipalities and DEWA, and conduct recycling drives for Bee’ah, the recycling and waste agency.’
The sense of pride in his voice is merited – the youngster’s grades never dropped once. In fact, he bagged an array of awards for his academics as well as efforts to promote sustainability. He has received the Sharjah Environment Awareness Award and was bestowed with the Sharjah Sustainability Award in 2013 for setting up a recycling plant at his school, Our Own English High School Boys, Sharjah, in coordination with the school authorities. ‘The plant recycles the waste water from our washrooms and uses it for drip irrigation in the school garden,’ he explains.
Internationally too, his efforts didn’t go unnoticed – Humaid received The Diana Award and bagged the presitigious opportunity to become a Tunza eco-generation ambassador, a CSR initiative by Samsung conducted in partnership with the UN which handpicks youngsters who can spread environmental awareness. ‘As an ambassador of Tunza Eco Generation I could use their vast database to do research and post articles. They’re a massive resource of all environmental news and scientific journals, which meant I constantly kept learning and sharing what I learnt at the eco club I set up in school and at Green Globe events.’
His stint at Tunza opened Humaid’s eyes to the grave dangers of plastic, the material he considers is the greatest environmental problem we face today. ‘We keep producing plastic without any real outlet to recycle it. Most of it just goes into landfills. We never segregate our waste and that’s a serious problem. On a small scale, segregation of waste is the simplest thing we can do. It makes the work of recyclers easier.
‘Plastic affects everything – our oceans have The Great Pacific Garbage patch. Plastic contaminates our soil, and its manufacturing causes air and water pollution. If we can reduce plastic waste, we can reduce our carbon footprints tremendously,’ he explains.
Humaid has spent the better part of his life dedicating weekends and every free hour after school, to organising awareness campaigns and eco-friendly events. He is an inspiration for students in his medical school where he continues his environmental activities.
So, who is his inspiration?
‘When the most powerful man on earth – the president of the United States – denies climate change you have to be your own inspiration. Take a look at our depleting ice caps and increasing pollution. Your life is at stake, your planet is at stake.
‘Kids might not be able to take action but they can influence the adults who can,’ he says.
And to the kids who want to influence adults like he has, he suggests to make the internet their ally. ‘We have all the information we need to save and protect the environment at our fingertips. Social media has majorly helped increase environmental awareness. You don’t have to join Green Globe or any existing organisation, start your own; we’re a generation full of opportunities.’
Pia Vashi, 12, Indian High School Dubai
Last summer, when Pia Vashi invited friends home to hang out during the vacation, they neither binge-watched television nor crouched around a laptop playing games online. ‘We spent an entire day making paper bags and it was so much fun,’ she beams.
The Indian High School, Dubai student isn’t alluding to the fun and games of an arts-and-crafts party, but a goal-orientated session of reusing newspapers and magazines to create eco-friendly paper bags, an initiative Pia started in an identical summer vacation setting in 2015 just aged nine. It is one she is still extremely passionate about.
‘When a plastic bag is discarded and strong sunlight falls on it, it produces toxic fumes,’ the girl explains, animatedly. ‘The gases (such as dioxins, cynaides and fluorines) released increase the temperature which causes global warming and pollution,’ Pia explains.
For the Dubai student, the dangers of plastic hit home during a trip to India when a neighbour’s cow didn’t come home after grazing. It was later found dead, and a necropsy revealed that its stomach was full of plastic. ‘My mother explained that the animal had eaten plastic bags along with food from garbage dumps.’
The incident far from traumatising Pia strengthened her resolve to launch a crusade against plastic bags. The young millennial had grown up using plastic bags and the realisation that an object so integral to her everyday life was toxic struck her hard. She also realised that plastic bags were the easiest everyday item to replace with a biodegradable substitute.
‘The first plastic bag ever created probably still exists in a landfill somewhere,’ she says emphatically, ‘because plastic takes thousands of years to decompose.
‘My mother told me why it was necessary to substitute plastic products with paper or bio-degradable materials. But then I wondered, if we keep cutting down trees to create fresh paper there will be deforestation. That’s when I came up with idea of reusing and recycling magazines and newspapers.’
When Pia presented the idea to her arts and crafts-savvy mum, the latter taught her how to craft bags from newspapers and magazines. Now Pia creates dustbin bags too and incorporates creative techniques picked up from YouTube. In fact, when she was nine, she went around her neighbourhood requesting people to donate their old magazines and newspapers and collected 100kg worth of paper that she could turn into bags.
Such was the little girl’s resolve that she not only created paper bags but also distributed them to groceries and stationery stores nearby, a practice she continues to this day.
‘At first the store keepers were reluctant to listen to me or take my bags,’ Pia grins. ‘They were worried whether the bags are strong enough and if they can hold purchases. But now they eagerly wait for me to show up. The sturdy bags can carry eggs, bread and even heavy bags of pulses,’ she adds. ‘They all now know me as ‘The Paper Bag Girl!’
Pia would be happy to see more paper bag girls and boys – she conducts workshops around the UAE and in India at schools and community organisations. ‘I can only make around 50 bags a month (she makes them at night when she’s done with school work and watching a bit of TV). But if more people know how to make them, we can make so many. Everything on earth can be recycled except time, so we need to put it to good use,’ she explains. The young environmentalist who is active in her school’s eco clubs and seminars, writes articles and poems about protecting the environment and has been nominated for the presitigious Diana Award, granted to individuals who are changing the world.
Pia hopes to work to protect marine life from plastic when she grows up. Meanwhile, she implores people to practice the four Rs – recycle, reuse, reduce and rethink. ‘Don’t throw paper, give them to organisations such as the Emirates Environmental Group (EEG) who will recycle it.’
Also read: Meet Dubai’s green families
Sainath Manikandan, 10, GEMS United Indian School, Abu Dhabi
How many fifth graders can claim to have created a robot that has had government organisations sit up take notice? Meet Sainath Manikandan. He’s only a decade old, but his visions and creations aren’t bound by the limitations of youth. The boy from Abu Dhabi created M Bot (Marine Robot), a mechanical cleaning robot designed to spiff up our oceans from plastic trash as part of Innovators 2018, a competition conducted by the Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK). It won him the prestigious Diana Award last month.
The 10-year-old, who’s an ambassador of the Drop It Youth campaign, an awareness programme that urges youngsters to give up single-use plastics such as straws and water bottles joined the initiative by Goumbook, a social enterprise that promotes sustainability in the UAE after his annual vacation in India. The astute young boy noticed the heaps of plastic littered around his hometown in Kerala and noticed the drastic difference between pollution in India and the UAE.
He then started wondering if the UAE was more polluted in comparison to countries that were more eco-friendly and decided he wanted to do something to bring about that change.
‘We have always participated as a family in beach and mangrove clean-ups but I told my mum Lalitha I wanted to do something more than I was already doing and she suggested I join Drop It Youth.’
At Drop It Youth, Sainath saw a movie that added an urgency to his need to create concrete change. ‘The movie A Plastic Ocean opened my eyes to the problem of plastic pollution and how marine species ingest plastic and then, in turn, we ingest them,’ he explains.
‘When I saw all that garbage, I wanted to clean it up but one person couldn’t do it alone. So, I decided to incorporate science to help me.’
Passionate about science and maths, Sainath had been attending robotics classes for a while and used his skills and knowledge from the classes to program the M Bot. ‘My instructors at the Robotics Institute and I spent a month fine-tuning the robot. I was so excited when it actually started working!’
Made from popsicle sticks, batteries and a storage basket, the M Bot is still in its prototype stage and Sainath has only tested it out ‘in the pool at home.’ But he hopes he receives the funding and technical backing to translate this working model into an industrial design.
He has several plans in the pipeline. ‘The UAE produces around 8,000 tonnes of plastic annually and I read in the paper that the UAE’s Minister of Climate Change declared reducing plastic pollution is his focus for 2018; the M Bot is my way to contribute to that goal,’ Sainath explains. ‘We can replace batteries with solar panels that can use the UAE’s constant supply of sunlight.’
The young inventor has also devised an idea for an app that will control his robot remotely at high seas without manpower; he exhibited the idea for the app at the UAE University’s IT Marathon in Al Ain last month where the impressed panel suggested he share the idea with the Dubai Coastal System.
Organisations such as the EEG have shown interest in developing Sainath’s creation at a larger scale and talks are underway.
Meanwhile, Sainath is putting his time to good use as a Drop It Youth ambassador. ‘The aim of Drop It Youth is to end plastic pollution and as an ambassadors we spread the message by talking at school and to our peers and at events orgnaised by Goumbook. We have worked hard to bring 2,000 pledges (promising to give up the use of plastic bottles) in three months,’ he says proudly.
‘The generation before us had the chance to save the world but they didn’t. So now it’s my generation’s turn to make that change. I convinced my 76-year-old grandfather and his friends to give up their plastic covers and pens. I hope I can make others do the same.’