This organization’s mission is to make schools across the country more sustainable by minimizing paper waste

Most schools use a lot of paper. From tests and handouts to notebooks and textbooks, colleges and high schools create a significant amount of paper waste. That’s why Sethu Odayappan co-founded Tree-Plenish, an organization dedicated to mitigating paper waste by teaming up with schools around the USA to plant trees in local communities.

Sethu first became aware of the impact of climate change after watching the documentary An Inconvenient Truth in a science class. “I was shocked to see all the statistics and images,” Sethu tells In The Know. “I was kind of looking back on my 12 years and realizing how wasteful schools are.”

Sethu was struck by the amount of paper his school used each year, and decided to team up with classmate Lizzy Elsner to do something about it. “Every single day in class, we’d get these huge packets of paper. Me and my cofounder, Lizzy, found out that our school uses about 230 trees worth of paper each year,” Sethu explains. “The next step was pretty simple for us. We wanted to replenish our community with these lost 230 trees.”

Together, Sethu and Lizzy organized a tree-planting event and rallied their local community to get involved. “We could’ve gone to a public park or this big patch of land in the middle of nowhere and just planted 230 trees, but one thing that was really important for us was getting the community involved,” Sethu explains. “On the day of the event, all of these teams came to a high school parking lot. We handed out these saplings and told them which houses to go and plant at, and we taught them how to plant the saplings.”

While Sethu and Lizzy initially started Tree-Plenish to address their school’s paper waste, the organization soon branched out and began teaming up with other schools around the country to plant trees. “Tree-Plenish has grown way more than I would’ve ever expected it to. And after our first successful year, we decided that we should try to bring it to a few of our neighboring towns in Massachusetts,” says Sethu. “So we set a goal of reaching 10 schools in Massachusetts. As more and more schools joined, we started revising our goals and realized, ‘Wow, we can do a lot better than 10 schools in Massachusetts.’”

In their first year, Tree-Plenish exceeded their initial goals by a significant margin. “I actually remember the call we had with our team, where people were laughing and joking at the idea of getting 50 schools in our first year,” Sethu recalls. “But we were actually able to reach 90 schools in that first year. We planted about 20,000 trees which was incredible.”

Sethu is optimistic that Tree-Plenish will continue to grow. He believes that the initiative makes it easy for schools and students to get involved in the movement to fight climate change. “I think that Tree-Plenish has a really bright future because one, it’s like a project in a box. It’s a very low barrier to entry for any school. You sign up, there’s no money you have to pay,” Sethu explains. “Our environmental justice initiative has a lot of potential to really give leadership opportunities to students who have historically not had them, [and] plant trees in communities that have historically not had trees.”

Sethu also believes that the trees planted by Tree-Plenish will have a significant impact on the environment. “We planted 20,000 trees last year, we’re planting 50,000 trees this year. These trees will have a huge impact on improving air quality for people, on reducing water runoff, on increasing shade, on improving the aesthetics of communities,” Sethu tells In The Know. “We need to very actively make decisions that will reduce climate change and reduce temperature rising, and one way we can do that is through tree planting.”

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