MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. – Students at Grand View Elementary School in Manhattan Beach have lunchtime all sorted out. They recycle what can be recycled, compost what they don't eat, and divert as much as they can from the landfill.

Kim Siehl is the executive director of Grades of Green, a homegrown grassroots movement that was started a decade ago by four moms who had kids in the school.

“They started this sorting program literally ten years ago," Siehl said, "and these kids are still learning and sorting.”

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And hopefully building lifelong habits. As they get older, those habits turn into action. Fifth graders choose a goal and work with Grades of Green mentors to achieve it. Then as they advance through middle and high school, Grades of Green helps them find their passion, use their voice and create campaigns.

“We teach them the skills to advocate for something," Siehl said, "and we mentor them and we teach them how to do that, what is the best way.”

Some of those campaigns involve school-wide policy. Students at Grand View recently lobbied to replace plastic cutlery with bamboo. Other efforts extend further, like their push to eliminate single use plastic bottles.

“And not only are there no plastic bottles here but because of these kids there are no plastic bottles at any of the five elementary schools," Siehl said.

And then there are the really big wins – ones that impact their whole community or maybe even the state.

“They learn to go before the city council," Siehl said, "and because of these kids from Grand View, really, Manhattan Beach passed one of the very first bag bans in the state.”  

With success stories like this, it wasn’t long before other districts wanted to follow the model. So Grades of Green branched out. These days their mentors work, often virtually, with students all around the world.

“We are now in 27 countries," Siehl said. "We’re global now. And 47 states.”

The original goal was to inspire kids like fifth grader Shea LaRosen to care for the environment.  After all, they are the ones that who are inheriting it.

“We are going to be the next people that are going to have to deal with this," LaRosen said, "so we should at least know about it and know how to fix it.”

“We know they are the future," Siehl said. “They are going to have to change this world for themselves and for their children. So that’s really what we are trying to do is create these leaders that are passionate and excited.”

Watching over the little ones as they sort, she can see those efforts taking root.

“It makes me so happy to see these kids just doing the work, being part of the solution and it’s all natural to them," she said, telling the students, "So we thank you guys for sorting and doing your work.  You’re awesome.”

She looks forward to seeing them blossom into the next generation of eco-leaders.