How environmentally friendly is the box in which your iPhone arrived? Karina Chan-van der Helm ‘24 wants you to be a conscious consumer, so she’s created a way for you to assess product packaging with a glance. Aptly named, “Conscious Consumers,” Karina’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL) fall 2021 Capstone project uses a sophisticated algorithm to break down the efficiency of product packaging and assigns it a star rating. Her goal is for this star rating to become a government mandate for all consumer packaging. This way, you can be the judge based on how many stars are printed on the product’s package you’re buying: one star—inefficient packaging, five-star—great!
This summer, on August 8, Karina received a 2022 President’s Environmental Youth Award (PEYA) (honorable mention, Region 3) from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in partnership with the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), for her project, one of only a dozen selected. Chan-van der Helm was among 49 K-12 students in the nation recognized for their “leadership and commitment to environmental education and environmental stewardship.” After traveling to D.C. with her mother and sister and Peter Randall, SCH Engineering & Robotics department chair, to accept the award, she acknowledged, “Getting recognition from the EPA gave me confidence in my work so far and made me realize that there are others who believe in the importance of this project. Because of this, I am planning on continuing Conscious Consumers this school year as part of the CEL Venture Accelerator program.”
Inspired by the Energy Star rating that you can find on appliances, such as refrigerators and washing machines, and nutrition labels on food products, Karina was determined to create a system to help consumers understand the impact of non-recyclable, non-compostable, or wasted product packaging.
Randall, who was Karina’s advisor and mentor on this project, said determining the product weight, the packaging weight, how much packaging is necessary, and the degree to which the material is recyclable or compostable all came into play as Karina was devising the algorithm. Her research also involved gathering data from the EPA and talking to large corporations, from Walmart to Procter & Gamble, about their packaging practices.
“Devising a scheme to weigh those factors in a fair and uniform way is what makes this challenging,” says Randall, making her project what he calls one of the most “technically sophisticated” of those presented by the EPA and CEQ and earned her a special shout out from the EPA deputy for her algorithm.
She hopes her five-star rating system (and hopefully mandate!), in her words, “will provide transparency in the packaging industry, with positive benefits for climate change, ocean litter, and recycling systems.”
And if consumers are making more informed decisions based on packaging? Well, you could see a change in packaging practices from companies, large and small.
Congratulations to Karina on being a five-star environmental steward!
[Featured photo: SCH junior Karina Chan-van der Helm was the recipient of a 2022 President’s Environmental Youth Award at a ceremony held recently in Washington, D.C. The awards celebrate climate actions and environmental stewardship and recognize the innovative thinkers and problem-solvers that earned distinction this year. Karina (center) is pictured with Kim Noble (left), senior advisor for Environmental Education, Office of Public Engagement and Environmental Education, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Honorable Brenda Mallory (right), chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).]