“I want people to think about how the earth is going to be in a hundred years,” says Reese Dubenko.
She’s small, serious and determined, with clear blue eyes and the kind of smile that comes infrequently enough that when it appears, I feel like I’ve earned it. She’s all of ten years old, but it’s clear she thinks about things that most 10-year-olds don’t—things that most adults don’t.
Today, she’s sitting in a Starbucks in San Jose, with a reusable cup in front of her, along with a couple of reusable bags, cloth mesh and resealable plastic, and a sleek black cylinder that contains her metal straw. “She bought them with her own money,” her dad Tim, who is sitting next to her, says admiringly.
Reese’s journey as an environmentalist began with social media and hearing about VSCO girls. She’s not a VSCO girl, she’s quick to point out, “I don’t wear scrunchies,” she says, of the ubiquitous hair wrap of the much-maligned enviro-girls. But “Save the Turtles,” the VSCO Girl message, popularized on social media and elevated to meme status, stayed with her. Making the connection to her own life came not long after. One day, following a long family vacation, Reese and her dad were in the grocery story to stock up on staples and fresh produce. “I looked into the cart and thought, ‘It’s full of plastic,’” Reese says.
That moment shifted something for her, catalyzing climate change from the abstract into a problem she felt she could do something about. Reese is the kind of kid who bakes treats for the dogs at her local shelter, so that she can cuddle them. When asked about what she wants to be when she grows up, she says a veterinarian. “Reese has a very kind heart,” her dad says.
From the beginning, Reese was clear about the actions she wanted her family to take towards abating climate change. “It started with her really being a little stinker about it,” says her dad, laughing. “If we bring something plastic home, she wants us to reuse it. My wife will hide a plastic bottle because she knows Reese is going to grill us.”
“I forget, often, what it’s going to be like for her kids. What’s it going to be like for her generation,” says Tim. Reese is there to remind him, and his wife, when they fall short of her standards.
Tim says “My wife came home from work [recently] and she brought a fork back home, and said, ‘Hey Reese, I just wanted you to know that I brought this plastic fork home,’ and Reese said, ‘That’s great mom but why didn’t you bring a metal fork with you? Why did you even get a plastic fork?’ Even if we try to do something that helps the environment, she always wants to know why we can’t do more.”
Together, they are taking steps. Her family just installed solar on their home. Her mom bought her a copy of Greta Thunberg’s collected speeches, No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference for Christmas. And Reese is working on her dad to get an electric car. Still, as we talk, her dad fingers the tall disposable plastic cup that holds his drink. “I didn’t even think,” he says, shaking his head.
When I ask about whether the kids at school are thinking about plastic, Reese tells me about a boy in third grade, who all the kids called “The Water Bottle King” because he’d bring five bottles into school to drink every day. There’s another girl she knows who brings five or six plastic bags with every snack, every day. I can almost see other people’s trash piling up, like landfill, in her mind.
“When I say something, people make fun of me. They say I’m a VSCO girl.” But it doesn’t seem to do much to deter her. “Most people say they recycle, but only something like 9 percent of all plastics get recycled,” she says. This is a controversial figure, most sources put that number between 20 and 25 percent. “There are people who ask me, ‘Why do you care—there are so many other things wrong with the planet, it doesn’t even matter.’ But it does to me.”
It’s easy to forget when you’re talking to Reese that she’s a kid, especially when she brings up the pro-environmental stance of presidential hopeful Tom Steyer or hits you with statistics about how long it takes a plastic bag to decompose in landfill—500 years, according to The Center for Biological Diversity, but that number can be misleading: since plastic bags photodegrade instead of biodegrade, they become microplastics and continue to absorb toxins and pollute.
But when I ask Reese about ways she’d like to do more to protect the planet, it’s instantly clear there’s a fifth-grader behind those serious blue eyes. “I don’t like to sleep in the dark, so I leave my closet light on. Sometimes that light stays on all night.” It takes me a minute to understand that she feels guilty about leaving that light on, and would rather save that electricity. But it’s not surprising that even staunch little environmentalists are afraid of the dark. Especially the ones with their fingers on the pulse of the planet.