Meet our Content Director, Annie Leonard:
Environmentalist, sustainability expert, and founder and
writer of The Story of Stuff Project

How Annie thinks about stuff

Hi Annie. How did you get interested in studying people and their 'stuff?'

I am just obsessed with stuff-where did it come from, how did it get to me, and where does it go? It started when I was in college in New York City. I went to college on the Upper West Side, and when I walked those 10 blocks up Broadway from my dormitory to my college every morning, there were shoulder-high piles of garbage on the sidewalk every morning. And I came home in the afternoon, they would be gone! And I would wonder, what is in that stuff? So then I took a field trip to the Fresh Kills Landfill, where New York City's garbage went, and it was like a bolt of lightning hit me. I stood there looking. As far as you could see in every direction were shoes and couches and refrigerators and pizza boxes, and I thought, "My goodness, we have a problem in this society: we have made an entire economy that is converting natural resources into trash it's so hidden." So I thought, it's so critical to share this information and get other people thinking about where their stuff comes from and where it's going.

How do you think about your own stuff?

Well, I love my stuff andI take good care of it. I am not anti-stuff, I'm pro-stuff. And one of the reasons that I have so much reverence for my stuff is that I have seen where it comes from and where it goes. For the past 20 years, I have been fortunate to be able to travel the world. I have visited literally hundreds of factories where our stuff is made and hundreds of dumps where our stuff is dumped, from Africa to Asia to Latin America, all over the world. And when you see for yourself the amount of energy and labor and materials and effort that it takes to make all that stuff and get it to us, that's enough to give you some real reverence for stuff and to hold on to it as long as possible.

How this LOOP SCOOPS Project came about

Why did you decide to do a children's project with WGBH?

When WGBH's Children's Production Unit approached me and told me about LOOP SCOOPS, I was thrilled to work with them as the Content Director. I am just so excited about it. There is nothing that I can think of that is more important than encouraging young people ages 6-10 to think critically about all the stuff in their lives-where all this stuff comes from, where it goes, what's the impact-not just overseas on producers that are making or disposing of this stuff, but on us. What is the impact of our obsession with stuff? Is it really serving either the planet or ourselves?

These are really important questions. They should be second nature. We should be asking them as we go through the day, before we think about buying or acquiring anything. If we can get people to start thinking critically about the stuff in their lives, we can really chart a different path towards more sustainability.

I definitely believe that younger kids can handle thinking about this, especially when you use familiar objects they recognize. Not only can they "handle" it, but they want to deal with these issues-they're curious, they want to know how the world works. I think it's important that we don't make them feel guilty. It's not our children's fault that their products contain poisonous things like neurotoxins and carcinogens. There's a broader systemic problem here. And so if we can talk to kids about the problems with the way we're currently making and using and throwing away stuff, without making them feel guilty-which is just what the LOOP SCOOPS do-then that will be a huge contribution to the conversation.

What parents can do to help their kids think in new ways

You're a mother Annie. How does your daughter think about these issues?

Yes, I have a ten-year-old daughter. It's a little different, probably good and bad, to grow up with a mom like me. But my daughter has traveled with me to a lot of factories and a lot of dumps, in Asia and Africa. She definitely has a heightened sense of where stuff comes from and where it goes. She still likes stuff, as much as the next person for sure, but the big difference I see is she really believes in sharing. She realizes that instead of each one of her friends having to get the same exact thing, they can each get a different one and then rotate them and share them. This not only reduces the amount of stuff you have to get, but it also builds community because you get to talk to each other while you're sharing.

What are questions parents can ask with their kids?

I think it's important for parents and teachers to get kids thinking more critically in a couple of different ways. One is about the quality of the stuff we're consuming. Is it toxic? Is it loaded with pesticides? Where did it come from? Was it made with child labor? This is how we can get people to buy less toxic, organic, the safer, least exploitative products. But it's also important to get kids thinking about the quantity. Even if we all bought green organic, we are still using too much stuff. So if we can get kids to critically develop that lens: What is this material?, Is it something I want in my household?, Is it something that I want to hold in my hands? Am I using too much? Do I really need this? Could I get this from the library instead? Could I borrow this from a friend?

Making intelligent choices about the products we buy has a lot of potential to reduce our impacts, and one of the biggest areas is packaging. Our products have too much packaging, and often the packaging is toxic, if it has PVC plastic. So my daughter and I have really developed this critical thinking lens that before we buy anything, first we check to see if it has PVC. PVC is the single most toxic plastic out there. A lot of people are concerned about plastics, but not all plastics are created equally. The number one plastic we need to stop using is PVC. Luckily, it's easy to identify because it often has a little 3 inside the recycling logo on the bottom of the package/ And it stinks, it smells like a shower curtain or a new car.

What are things parents can do at home with their kids?

There are a lot of things you can do in your own home to reduce your impact. Some are cheap and simple, like, a clothesline. I love my clothesline, I don't have a dryer. I have an inside clothesline for the winter; I have an outside clothesline for the summer. The thing I love about it is not just the reduced electricity bills and environmental impact, but having a clothesline makes me stand still in my garden for 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening, just breathing and putting up and taking down my clothes. That is often my most reflective, cherished moment in the day. And it is cheap and easy, anyone can do it.

But the number one thing that I do to lower my impact is I live in a community. I know my neighbors. We share things. If I need a down coat for my kid, or a bicycle, or a turkey roasting pan that I don't have, anything I need I can borrow it from my neighbors. By living in a community, we can turn to each other rather than the market to meet our needs. That is definitely the single biggest thing I do to lower my impact.

What teachers and schools can do to help their kids think in new ways

There will be materials for teachers to use SCOOPS in their classrooms. What do you think the opportunities are for schools?

Schools, and elementary schools in particular, are critical partners in cultivating a new culture of sustainability, which is what we're going to need for this planet to survive. There's a bunch of ways that schools can get involved. They can get involved in their curriculum, by incorporating scientific and sustainability information into their classes. They can get involved in their values and their organizational cultures. It's really important for kids to hear an echo chamber. If they're talking to their parents, or if they're online at PBSkids.org, or if they're in school, everywhere they're going, they should be hearing the same thing: we can and we will and we must convert our society to be more sustainable.

Schools can also be involved in walking the talk and actually demonstrating a different way of living. In my daughter's school, for example, kids weigh their lunch after they're done. They chart the data and can see the waste going down-down-down- they're aiming for zero. Actually, they have a zero-lunch-waste policy at their school. So when you join the school, you sign a policy that you will do your best to reduce waste. Every class has composting and recycling bins. In the playground, there's a bench that actually opens up, and it's a big worm bin,.So there's thousands of worms that are actually composting the food waste from lunch. And then there's an entire second grade science curriculum that's built around the composting of the waste. So not only are kids learning about biological systems, but then they're going home and saying, "Mom, Dad, let's compost!"

Annie Leonard