From left to right: Cole Rasenberger, Nik Young, Liam Donoghue, and Kaela Rasenberger visit KFC headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky to drop off 6,000 postcards advocating for KFC to use post recyclable fiber in their throwaway paper containers. Photo courtesy of Kerry Rasenberger.
Cole Rasenberger’s quest to save forests in the US South started as a school assignment to ‘be an activist’ about something important to him. However, after learning from Dogwood Alliance that coastal forests in North Carolina are being destroyed to make throw-away paper packaging for big fast food companies—such as McDonalds and KFC—Cole Rasenberger, at the age of 8, became more than an activist; he became an environmental leader!
He started by targeting McDonalds directly. With the help of 25 friends, and his elementary school administration, he got every student in his school to sign postcards to McDonalds. In all, Cole sent 2,250 postcards to McDonalds.
“I asked my principal and teacher if I could get my whole school to sign my postcards. I told them I am only one voice; if we get my school to sign it would be thousands of voices. I think that would be better than just me,” Cole says, telling mongabay.com how he was able to get his whole school to join in his activism. “McDonalds is always doing things for kids, so I thought it would be a great place to start. I drew handmade postcards of animal habitats. […] I asked McDonald to be the environmental leader for my generation and please increase your use of post consumer recycled fiber.”
Clearcutting in Green Swamp—Brunswick County, North Carolina for KFC paper packaging. Photo by: Dogwood Alliance.
Not long after receiving the postcards, McDonalds announced it would soon be switching their bags to 100 percent recycled paper.
But Cole, who won the 2010 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes for his activism, was not yet done: “The reason KFC was my next choice was because they are such a big company,” he says. “They don’t use much post consumer recyclable fibers in their paper products. If we could get them to use even a little bit, it would save a lot of trees. If KFC and McDonald become the Environmental Leaders for my generation, everyone else will follow.”
This time Cole and his friends got 6,000 postcards signed. Then Cole, his sister, Kaela, and two friends, Nik and Liam, flew to KFC headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky to deliver the letters in person. Two KFC executives met with the children; they did not commit to changing their paper sourcing policies, but gave the kids $5 gift cards for KFC.
Cole says he understands that it is difficult for KFC to quickly change their policies.
“They are a huge company and huge companies can’t make decisions fast. They have so many people that have to OK things before it’s approved. […] The KFC executives were wonderful to us. They were very kind people. I look at our trip as an opportunity to open doors for future environmental changes. Hopefully, KFC will use more post recyclable fibers in their paper products in the near future. That’s all I can hope for right now.”
INTERVIEW WITH COLE RASENBERGER
Logging projects and clear cuts in the Green Swamp, Southeastern North Carolina. Green Swamp—Brunswick County, North Carolina. Photo by: Dogwood Alliance.
Mongabay: How did your activism to help save North Carolina’s forests start?
Cole Rasenberger: My second grade TD (Talent Development) teacher gave me an assignment to be an activist about something we cared about, like an animal. We were supposed to write a letter to a government official supporting what we believed in. After doing many weeks of research, I decided I wanted to save a bunch of animals and their habitats when I came across the problem the North and South Carolinas Coastal forest are facing.
I learned that writing a government official would not help the situation, because most of these areas are privately owned by the paper packaging mills. One of the biggest users of these mills are fast food restaurants. They buy the paper products from these mills. I learned the only way to make a change is to write them since they are the customers of these mills. I thought maybe the fast food restaurants can ask the mills to change to use more post consumer recyclable fibers.
My teacher’s main point in this assignment was for us kids to learn we have a voice as long as we are standing up for something that is right and helpful to our environment. Ms. Beard wanted us to believe in ourselves and learn our voice is just as important as an adult’s.
Mongabay: Why are North Carolina’s forests worth saving?
Green Swamp—Brunswick County, North Carolina. Photo by: Photo by: Dogwood Alliance.
Cole Rasenberger: This is the paragraph I wrote from my research to read to the kids before they signed the handmade postcards I made: “Everyone is worried about our rainforest, but we need to be aware what’s happening to our NC Coastal forest. North Carolina Coastal Forest has the highest concentration of different tree species, aquatic diversity and wetlands in North America. These forests have the richest temperate freshwater ecosystem in the WORLD. We have 31 million acres of Southern Coastal forests, but thousands of acres are being destroyed daily. Unfortunately, some animals and plants species are on the endangered list because their environments are gone forever. These coastal forests are important air filters and cutting them down will intensify global warming the same way losing rain forest does. If we ask Fast Food restaurants to use some post-consumer recycled fibers in their paper product we can slow down the cutting of these Coastal Forests and save some animals homes.”
Mongabay: Will you tell us about the campaign with McDonald’s?
Cole Rasenberger: I asked my principal and teacher if I could get my whole school to sign my postcards. I told them I am only one voice; if we get my school to sign it would be thousands of voices. I think that would be better than just me. They gave me permission after I showed them my plan. McDonalds is always doing things for kids, so I thought it would be a great place to start. I drew handmade postcards of animal habitats. I couldn’t write too much on the other side. I asked McDonald to be the environmental leader for my generation and please increase your use of post consumer recycled fiber. I had copies made. Then I had a team of 25 kids go to all the classes to get signatures on Earth Day. I could not have done this as a second grader if my friends didn’t help me. I am very thankful for all the help my friends, teachers, my little sister and other adults have given me.
Mongabay: Last year you were the youngest winner of the 2010 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. How did it feel to win such a prize?
Cole Rasenberger: It was pretty cool to win this prize. It was neat to read about the other kids too. They did some amazing projects. I was very impressed with them. The people from Gloria Barron are very nice.
Mongabay: You’ve now moved onto KFC. What’s wrong with KFC’s paper policy?
Cole Rasenberger: The reason KFC was my next choice was because they are such a big company. They don’t use much post consumer recyclable fibers in their paper products. If we could get them to use even a little bit, it would save a lot of trees. If KFC and McDonald become the Environmental Leaders for my generation, everyone else will follow. That would be a great math fair problem to solve….”how many trees were saved because McDonald and KFC now use post consumer recyclable fiber in their paper products?”
Mongabay: Were you disappointed by KFC’s response to the 6,000 postcards you collected?
Cole and Kaela Rasenberger visiting Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by: Kerry Rasenberger.
Cole Rasenberger: No, not at all. They are a huge company and huge companies can’t make decisions fast. They have so many people that have to OK things before it’s approved. I learned that in JA Biz town this year when I was the Mayor [innovative program where children enact roles in a town]. It can be hard to get things approved. The KFC executives were wonderful to us. They were very kind people. I look at our trip as an opportunity to open doors for future environmental changes. Hopefully, KFC will use more post recyclable fibers in their paper products in the near future. That’s all I can hope for right now.
Mongabay: Are there any plans for a next step?
Cole Rasenberger: Well, I have my End of Grade (EOG’s) testing coming up in mid-May, so that has to be my focus for right now. After the EOG’s, I’ll probably get my friends together to come up with the next plan. Don’t really know my next step.
Mongabay: What advice would you give kids who like yourself are interested in protecting forests, but are not sure how to start?
Cole and Liam Donoghue on the airplane out to Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by: Kerry Rasenberger.
Cole Rasenberger: My first advice to give kids is what my teacher taught me, “believe in yourself and understand you have a voice. And your voice is important if you are doing it for the right reason.” To get started go to the library and research. Talk to different environmental organizations. There are tons of them. Look into your local communities to see what needs help protecting or planting. There are so many things we can do for our environment!
Mongabay: Why is it important for kids to get involved in environmental issues? There are so many different environmental issues out there.
Cole Rasenberger: I kind of feel if we aren’t careful now we might not have that great of forests when I’m an adult. We need to start looking at things differently. I have family that lives in Europe and other different countries. Those countries seem to be head of us in preserving forests, recycling, not using plastic bag at grocery stores, etc. We are a huge country and it’s time to start protecting it.
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