How Mill Valley Native and Eco-Warrior Rebecca Wunderlich is Making an Impact With her Zero Waste Classroom

zero waste classroom

Rebecca Wunderlich, born and raised in Mill Valley, is an eco-warrior doing all she can to spread the word about the importance of environmental consciousness. She attributes one of her childhood teachers, Mrs. Terwilliger, the belated and beloved Mill Valley environmental teacher, remembered by many locals for her inspirational ways of sharing and educating children with her love of nature. Mrs. Terwlliger routinely showed up at our local schools in her van, filled to the brim with all sorts of educational nature props as she taught thousands of children to fall in love with nature. She routinely led children on nature walks to open their eyes to all of the natural wonders in our local environment. To this day, Rebecca will occasionally catch whiffs of specific scents in the grasses, throughout the seasons, that remind her of her kindergarten days exploring animal tracks, insects and plants with the beloved naturalist.

Rebecca’s roots run deep in Mill Valley. Some of you may remember her mother, Deborah Wunderlich, a local hairstyling legend at 13 Bernard, the first hair salon in Mill Valley and her stepfather, a fifth-generation Mill Valley resident, Bob Albachten often known for collecting rare, old glass bottles and arrowheads on Mt. Tam.

Rebecca studied Wilderness Leadership and Environmental Science at Prescott College before becoming an Outward Bound instructor for 12 years where she led trips in Alaska, Utah, Colorado and Mexico. She taught Natural History at Point Bonita in the Marin Headlands and later taught California Studies to seniors at Urban High School in San Francisco before establishing the Outdoor Education program at Marin Horizon School. After earning her teaching credential, she worked for Aim High, a program for inner-city youth based in Hunter’s Point and Bayview in San Francisco where she taught environmental stewardship in an off-campus classroom setting.

Rebecca currently teaches 5th-grade math and science at Marin Primary in Larkspur. For the past 10 years, her classroom has been plastic-free. Sometimes challenged with the notion that “Sustainability” may be too big of a word to title her lead-off  5th grade unit, Rebecca’s response has always been, “You just have to learn it and live it.” Wisdom Supply Co, a zero-waste school supply company based in San Francisco supports her efforts with items like refillable aluminum dry erase pens and beautiful cedar pencils. Rebecca’s students build their own binders out of cardboard each year, simply reusing the binder hardware as they switch out the cardboard year to year. Her classroom does not use wet wipes for disinfecting as they are not recyclable or compostable.  Rebecca urges all of us to keep containers small. “Your garbage should always be much smaller than your compost and recycling and there’s no need to use plastic bags to line your garbage cans.  You can use brown bags as your garbage bags which slows you down from throwing wet products away that are likely compostable.”

In their first year, Rebecca’s students become acquainted with green school supplies and recycling.  She engages the students with a journal challenge — the Blue Life Journal,  in which, every day, they write a journal entry based on a different sustainability prompt.  “When we’re living a blue life and thinking about blue life choices, we’re really thinking about the fact that we are a water planet.”  To avoid becoming overwhelmed with the expansive breadth of sustainability directions, Rebecca focuses on the ocean—keeping plastic out of the ocean. As a lifelong avid surfer, the ocean is her sanctuary and this passion shines through in her teaching.

Rebecca’s second unit, “Trashion Fashion” encourages the students to create wearable art out of their trash, culminating in a scripted runway show describing each outfit. She also coordinates beach cleanups with her students in conjunction with the California Coastal Commission. Just outside of her classroom, a sign hangs, “Check your plastic at the door”. Rebecca hopes to instill an awareness of the alternatives to plastic to encourage her students to actually imagine a life without it.  A lack of knowledge of where plastic eventually ends up drives her to “a purposeful space that I can hold as a teacher.”

The 5 Gyres Institute, a leader in the global movement against plastic pollution, regularly conducts expeditions of citizen scientists in the five garbage patches in our world’s oceans.  Three years ago, Rebecca went to Indonesia to discover the effects of microplastics in the ocean with the 5 Gyres.  After regularly traveling there for the past 20 years, it was disheartening to see the change in the shoreline and waters off of Indonesia due to plastic garbage. Naturally, Rebecca encourages her students to similarly become citizen scientists. “With any teaching of sustainability, we need to find the relevancy of how we are interacting” she urges. Her curriculum progresses with teaching her students about ocean currents. Ultimately, we don’t want to be doing Ocean Clean-Ups, but rather focusing on an upstream mentality of understanding– the more we can capture before the damage is done.  As Rebecca asserts, “There shouldn’t be a need for any ocean clean-up”.

Rebecca’s passion and unstoppable determination to raise eco-awareness goes well beyond the classroom. In 2019, Rebecca and Molly DeVries, owner of Ambatalia at The Lumber Yard, a modern textile company focused on multi-use, everyday linens for a non-disposable life, co-produced the first-ever Mt. Tamalpais Eco Festival held at The Lumber Yard with a complete zero-waste event. Mill Valley Refuse taught residents how to recycle as they “talked trash” throughout the event.

This summer, Rebecca will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of her overnight surf camp, Crossing Borders, for kids aged 9-16 in which kids are encouraged to step out of their comfort zone to explore perceived limits while appreciating the vast energy of the ocean.

No one represents the true definition of what it means to be an eco-warrior more than Rebecca. Her commitment and dedication to ridding our oceans of plastic, starting with educating our youth, would certainly make Mrs. Terwilliger proud.

Photos by Laura Reoch, September-Days Photography.

This article originally appeared in Mill Valley Living.

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