Jiin Yun was in second grade when she first noticed that even many well-meaning folks aren’t great at recycling.
One of her classmates blew his nose, then threw the used tissue into the recycling bin at their Irvine school. He surely thought he was doing a good thing. But back even then, Yun knew products like facial tissues, paper towels and napkins — or any soiled paper, for that matter — can’t be recycled.
Flash forward a decade, and Yun, at the wise age of 16, has authored a children’s book about recycling. The senior at Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana also developed an app, with help from her older sister, that offers details on whether and how to recycle more than 500 common items. And she launched a nonprofit called The Recycling Dictionary, which holds workshops across Orange County to educate younger students about smart recycling practices.
Recycling has gotten a bit of a bad rap in recent years, Yun acknowledged, as more studies come out about the low success rate of many programs. But while recycling alone won’t curb climate change, when done right, Yun insists it’s still a simple way to reduce landfill waste and planet-warming emissions that come from rotting items.
Now other teens who see the value in Yun’s work plan to build on her example, with chapters of The Recycling Dictionary established in other parts of Orange County and more in the works in Northern California and on the East Coast.
Expanding wasn’t even on Yun’s radar when she first started this effort a couple years ago. Today, she hopes it’s just the beginning.
“Branching this out nationwide and getting the message out there is my biggest dream for the organization,” Yun said. “I never envisioned it, but I’m really glad that it’s starting to work out.”
While Yun had that lightbulb moment in second grade, she said it was really in middle school, when she joined her school’s Science Olympiad team, that she developed a passion for environmental science.
She started attending Orange County School of the Arts thanks to her talent on the cello, which took her around the country this summer on tour with the National Youth Orchestra of America. But Yun also loves creative writing, with several prizes for her poetry that often includes themes about her Korean heritage and her heart for the planet. That led to her writing “The Recycling Dictionary” children’s book, which she self-published with help from her family last year.
Yun calls the picture book an “A to Z guide on proper recycling procedures.” It includes interactive elements, such as word puzzles, which Yun said are aimed at keeping kids hooked as they learn.
That mission also runs through the workshops she’s put on in schools and libraries across Orange County. Yun brings along props and prizes, with a quiz at the end of each 30-minute workshop. Her latest session was Thursday evening at the Santa Ana Library, where she invited kids ages 9 to 12 to “become Eco-Kids Superheroes.”
The first time Yun got up in front of students, she said she experienced some social anxiety.
“I did have to personally overcome that fear and try to just get into the moment, speak up, make everything fun for everybody,” she said. “And once I get the hang of it, after I’m up there for a few seconds or so, I’m really in the zone and it kind of comes naturally after that.”
Yun wanted to focus her book and workshop on children because she said they take in and absorb information so quickly. One of her favorite things about this journey so far has been to watch how kids start off shy at her workshops, then start to open up and get excited about recycling as the program goes on. By the end of the sessions, she said kids are vowing to tell their parents that, say, plastic grocery store bags shouldn’t go in recycling bins because they get caught in the machines.
“Getting their recycling habits correct at such a young age, I believe that that’s really important,” she said.
“But on the opposite end, we don’t really have to wait for the next generation to have proper recycling habits, which is why I also created the mobile application.”
The Recycling Dictionary app is free to download. Users can search for recycling information about particular products or browse categories, such as home goods and school supplies, for tips that go beyond just what can go in the green bin. For toothbrushes, for example, the app explains which manufacturers will take and recycle products through drop-off locations or the mail.
Yun brings that same talent and insight to her work as a member of the Youth Advisory Board for Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, according to office spokesperson Peter Opitz.
“Our team has enjoyed having such a friendly advocate who is eager to engage in passionate conversation with her peers,” Opitz said.
To expand Yun’s work, she’s landed sponsorships from companies including Wells Fargo and OCRecycling.com. But she and her vice president, Mary Hong — who’s a sophomore at Orange County School of the Arts and also runs social media for the group — got their biggest boost when the duo won a fellowship from the Irvine-based Dragon Kim Foundation that included a $5,000 grant and leadership training.
Daniel Kim, who started the foundation in memory of his son, Dragon, said Yun and Hong’s project was a good fit for their program because it took a big problem and carved out a manageable way to make a difference. But Kim said it was their passion, commitment and authenticity that really made them stand out.
One of the biggest lessons Yun said she learned from real estate entrepreneur Christopher Lim, who was her mentor in the Dragon Kim Foundation program, was to stay true to herself and her mission as the program expands.
Another lesson she’s learned along the way is persistence. She laughed remembering when she and Hong were first making calls to local school districts and libraries about holding their workshops. They’d immediately launch into speeches about their efforts, and Yun says sometimes the line would just go dead. Yun and Hong took it as a learning experience, tweaked their initial approach and kept reaching out. Now they’ve educated more than 500 students at their workshops throughout the county.
Hong is part of a small team with big talent that has helped Yun build out The Recycling Dictionary.
That includes OC School of the Arts classmate Sky Keyoung, who serves as secretary for the organization when she’s not hosting the podcast Climate Activate or practicing as an award-winning opera singer. And there’s technology director Willie Yao, who recently interned for a student-run climate podcast out of Duke University and founded OC School of the Arts’ Esports Club.
Then there’s Jimin Han, a junior at Portola High School who’s won art and science competitions for her environment-themed work. She’s co-director of research along with Melissa Wu of Santa Margarita Catholic High School, who started a Recycling Dictionary club at her school.
Next, twin teens are launching a branch in Northern California, while a friend of a friend, connected to Yun through the National Youth Orchestra of America, is setting up a Recycling Dictionary chapter in Georgia.
“I want to introduce the program into my own community because I believe that our everyday actions have the ability to accumulate into something bigger,” said Annie Ho, 16, who lives in Suwanee, Georgia. “The Recycling Dictionary’s mission aligns with my belief that educating and mobilizing the youth on something as simple —fundamental, really — as recycling can lead to a more sustainable future, one bottle, can or box at a time.”
As Yun starts her senior year and gets ready to celebrate her 17th birthday, she isn’t yet sure where she’ll be next year. But she’s now leaning toward studying either environmental health or environmental policy.
Irvine Councilmember Tammy Kim, who selected Yun as a student intern, said she’s impressed but not surprised at what the teen has accomplished.
“Witnessing her dedication gives me hope for a brighter, more sustainable future.”