By Amy Wenk

Four inspired sophomores at Riverwood International Charter High School are hoping to make the community more environmentally sound.

“We all are really interested about doing something to change our surroundings, to do something industrious for once,” said Oliver Paprin, 15. “The issue of the environment and the state that it’s in now is something we all want to know more about.”

So Oliver, Blake Engelhard, Georgiy Lomsadze and Mallory Hope have organized Next Big Step, a not-for-profit group that approaches businesses to promote “green” habits for daily operations.

“The idea really came out of me being just a freak about saving energy,” said Blake, 15. “I try to keep the lights off all the time. I will unplug my computer after I am done using it. I will try not to waste paper, things like that. It’s just really my addiction to save the environment.”

Next Big Step will perform energy audits at small businesses, then formulate practices to save electricity, water and paper. The group will pay for a majority of the recommendations and complete installation free.

“There are a lot of big things that we wish we could change, like adding in alternative energy sources, but usually it’s a lot more expensive and harder to do that,” Blake said. “So instead, we’re really just looking to turn all the lights to fluorescent, add in energy circuits to make them not waste energy and institute recycling programs.”

Once an installation is complete, the students will return to the business six months to a year later to evaluate the energy efficiency of the facilities. They hope to be reimbursed if the new practices save the company money.

“We are not getting any money, and they are not losing any money,” Oliver said. “They are saving money, and that’s where we’ll help them out and, while doing so, help our environment.”

The students at the Sandy Springs charter school, which is open to high-schoolers in Buckhead and Brookhaven, already completed one audit, although the owner was less than receptive to the suggestions.

“It’s definitely a learning experience on how to deal with people,” Blake said.

The sophomores have approached 20 other businesses to spark participation in the program. Rather than corporate chains, they are targeting small boutiques, mom-and-pop establishments and “people open to innovation,” Mallory said.

Five or six businesses, including World Peace Cafe and NuBody Training, have expressed interest in a visit from Next Big Step. The group also is speaking to CityWalk management about establishing a recycling program for tenants who lack one.

In addition, the teens have applied for grants from groups such as the Captain Planet Foundation and MTV Networks. They said they secured Trader Joe’s as a sponsor, are organizing a school fundraiser for early February and plan to sell T-shirts promoting Next Big Step.

“Anything to get people talking, especially at Riverwood, because there are a lot of people whose parents are professionals and potential clients,” Mallory said. “We need to get the word out.”

They plan to register Next Big Step as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, making donations to the club tax-deductible.

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