Today there is no shortage of opinions about young people presumably wasting their time while glued to their phones. But one cannot help but be impressed by Karina Chan-van der Helm.
Today there is no shortage of opinions about young people presumably wasting their time while being glued to their cell phones. Similar opinions have been expressed at least since Socrates famously disparaged the youth of Athens more than 2,400 years ago.
On the other hand, one cannot help but be impressed by an extraordinary teenager like Karina Chan-van der Helm. The 16-year-old junior at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy is poised, mature beyond her years, articulate, polite, highly intelligent and a creative thinker.
She also has developed a practical and effective way to help consumers reduce the amount of needless trash they send to the landfill each year. Her project, which Karina calls “Conscious Consumers,” was awarded a 2022 President’s Environmental Youth Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in partnership with the White House Council on Environmental Quality on August 8.
Inspired by the Energy Star rating that you can find on appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines, Karina created an algorithm that rates the packaging for products purchased by consumers.
“The excess amount of packaging is something that’s bothered me for most of my life,” she told us in a Zoom interview last week. “I have always tried to buy things without an, unnecessary amount of packaging. My project focuses on making the sustainability of a product’s packaging clear to consumers so they can make purchasing decisions with reducing harmful packaging waste in mind.”
Excess packaging – which includes not just a seemingly limitless amount of cardboard containers but also those ubiquitous clamshells and silly layers of cellophane – is a major contributor to the millions of tons of trash that the U.S. produces each year, she said. Her rating system is designed to help consumers understand the impact of non-recyclable, non-compostable or excessive product packaging.
“I created an algorithm that calculates the ratio of the product’s weight to its packaging weight, the materials its packaging is made of and data on the waste management processes of those materials,” she explained. “Each consumer’s decision to purchase products with more sustainable packaging leads to a large-scale reduction of harmful packaging waste.”
Eventually, Karina would like to see a government mandate regarding the amount of packaging that can be used for a particular sized product. But she has no illusions that this will happen any time soon.
“My main goal at the moment is to get the support and mentorship of people who have expertise in waste management, algorithm design and the navigation of legal and corporate processes,” she said. “In the long run, I would like to be a small part of influencing corporations to implement this idea, to help the environment and possibly the enactment of legislation some day.”
Karina traveled to Washington, D.C., to accept her award with her mother, sister and Peter Randall, who chairs the SCH Engineering & Robotics Department. After the trip, Karina said she decided to continue working on her project with the school’s CEL Venture Accelerator program.
“Getting recognition from the EPA gave me confidence in my work so far and made me realize there are others who believe in the importance of this project,” she said.
Randall, who was Karina’s advisor and mentor on this project, said the algorithm considers product weight, packaging weight, how much packaging is necessary and the degree to which the material is recyclable or compostable. Her research involved gathering data from the EPA and interviewing officials at large corporations such as Walmart and Procter & Gamble about their packaging practices.
“Devising a scheme to weigh those factors in a fair and uniform way is what makes this challenging,” said Randall, calling Karina's project one of the most “technically sophisticated” of those presented to the EPA and the White House Council.
When asked about her first name, Karina said that her parents had planned to name her Katrina, but in August of 2005, shortly before she was born, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and many other Gulf Coast communities. Her parents changed one letter in her name, so that she and others would not be reminded of that tragedy whenever they saw or heard her name.
Karina's mother, Dr. Vanessa Z. Chan, is the chief commercialization officer for the U.S. Department of Energy and prior to that was a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Her father, Mark van der Helm, who recently passed away, was Chief Operating Officer for Guzman Energy. Her sister, Ariana, 13, is a SCH Middle School student.
Laura Richards contributed to this article. For more information, visit sch.org. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org