By Kate Fried
It’s a known fact that apathy is the enemy of social change. It’s the objective of any activist to not only take stock of the challenges confronting communities, but to galvanize their members to overcome the frustrations inherent to enacting true reform. Devin Schroeder has learned this lesson a little earlier than some. The 15 year-old Durham, New Hampshire resident recently won the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, awarded once a year to twenty-five young leaders between the ages of eight and 18 who have made a positive difference to people and the planet, for his work helping to reduce bottled water consumption in his community.
At age 13, Schroeder launched a Take Back the Tap campaign at Oyster River Middle School after watching the film Blue Gold and drawing inspiration from Ryan Hreljac, who raised $2,000,000 to build 319 wells in 11 countries through the Ryan’s Well Foundation. Dismayed by the dismal figures regarding plastic bottled water recycling in the U.S.—about 75 percent of empty plastic bottles wind up in landfills, lakes, streams and oceans—Devin set out to educate his community about the problem, and its impact on oceans and the environment.
“They’re starting to drill [for bottled water] in Barrington, which is nearby,” said Shroeder in a recent interview. “And if we allow this to happen, the groundwater in my community will be affected at some point. Plastic bottles are contributing a lot to pollution in the oceans, which is affecting the climate. It’s not just affecting my community, but the world I live in.”
To kick off his campaign, Schroeder invited the community, including the town councilors and the school board, to a screening of the movie Tapped, followed by a question and answer session. He prepared for the event by touring the town’s water facility and learning the facts about tap water and bottled water. After the screenings, he donated to the town library a copy of the documentary, and to his school, he gifted a large water cooler to help faculty provide free tap water at events.
Devin continued to host screenings of Tapped, and although he is now a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, he still returns periodically to host more screenings and educate students about the negative environmental repercussions of bottled water.
His efforts are paying off. Oyster River Middle School has eliminated bottled water at all athletic events, and even amongst budget issues, it has since replaced all of its water fountains with hydration stations to encourage students to drink tap water, developments that Devin was instrumental in bringing about. Linda Rief, Devin’s former language arts teacher, noted recently that one of the stations alone has saved 10,000 plastic bottles from landfills.
“Devin is exceptional in his activism,” said Rief over email. “He believes that people can make a difference one person at a time, and in small ways that will make a big difference.”
These days, Devin continues to act on behalf of the planet. He is a member of the Environmental Action Committee at Exeter, where he is helping the school reduce waste by expanding its composting program. As for his future, he says that he will continue to engage in sustainability issues throughout college and beyond.
For one so young, Devin maintains a pragmatic, yet hopeful attitude towards the sometimes sluggish engine of social change. “People are apathetic about environmental issues because they see a huge problem and they don’t know how to tackle it…you can’t be overwhelmed by all the world’s problems,” he said. “You have to start small, and it will evolve into bigger things and more will happen. One person might succumb to apathy, but if you don’t, you can help someone else out,” he said.