With a black, synthetic leather briefcase in hand and a pocket protector attached to his neatly tucked button-down shirt, a young John Daniel Russo patrolled the locker-strewn hallways of Carmel Middle School with an underlying need to make a significant impact on a scale much bigger than his school.
At CMS, J.D. Russo’s desires spanned much further than the sole hopes of passing P.E., and he quickly became enamored with the possibilities the adult world had to offer.
These dreams expanded swiftly into a reality when, at 14, he learned of an alliance of individuals, organizations and businesses working to educate and abolish the excessive use of plastic and its harmful pollution called the Plastic Pollution Coalition, created in October 2009.
“What really struck me about the PPC was just realizing the impact that something we all use every day and take for granted has on the world,” Russo says. “Plastic forks, cups, bottles, bags—we see them all around us all the time, and realizing that every single one of those I used was having an adverse impact on the planet was really shocking.”
The reality of his inadvertent negative impact on the world was truly what pushed Russo to take action…and pushed him over the edge into a role of responsibility.
While his quirky personality and adult-like manners may have made him stand out in grade school, now as a senior at Carmel High School they have made him a frontrunner for success.
Russo’s involvement in the coalition began at its inaugural meeting at the home of Irmelin DiCaprio—actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s mother.
This meeting was the spark that set the fire for Russo’s involvement in the PPC as he quickly became pulled into a project aimed at projecting its mission to an audience worldwide.
Russo’s first project began with companions Kenna Little and Lana Richards—both seniors at Carmel High School—and science teacher Michael Guardino as the four created and submitted a proposal aimed at reducing the use of single-use plastics across the Monterey Peninsula. Their project was eventually accepted by the 2011 Algalita International Youth Summit on plastic pollution.
The first time Guardino saw Russo speak was actually not at the summit, but instead at a TEDx Talk in Southern California.
“He was just amazingly eloquent,” Guardino says. “There were dozens of adults, and I don’t know if he was the absolute youngest there, but if he wasn’t, he was pretty darn close, and he held his own.”
The Algalita International Youth Summit is a four-day conference that works with students from across the world to promote environmental awareness, help develop speaking skills and student leadership and spark local action.
“I was already pretty environmentally conscious,” Richards says. “But I never realized the scale of how much we are damaging the environment with plastic. For the summit, J.D. was definitely the team leader. He had all the ideas, but the conference allowed him to develop his speaking skills.”
Russo’s involvement in reducing the plastic footprint has taken a huge leap. As the Youth Outreach Advisor for PPC, Russo provides a liaison between adults and youth around the world by traveling to various countries to speak about the ever increasing problem of plastic that the world is facing.
Russo’s mother Daniella, PPC cofounder and executive director, could not agree more.
“Travelling to the [United Arab Emirates], Nicaragua, Guatemala and Costa Rica has enriched J.D.,” Daniella observes. “But more importantly has given him the opportunity to see his own role in a big and complex world.”
Russo spends his time abroad speaking to high school students about the importance of caring for the environment, how to get involved in the fight against plastic pollution and what youth across the world are achieving together.
When speaking to the world’s youth, Russo has noted that some seem to be unresponsive to the larger problem at hand.
“I see two problems with people our age,” Russo says. “Many simply don’t see why they personally should care about plastic pollution, and even more don’t believe that they have the power to do anything about it.”
Not only is this Carmel senior able to meet with youth around the world, but when visiting the UAE Russo had a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet the Sheikh.
The Sheikh took him into his home and on a tour around many of his charities, which allowed them to form a close connection.
“Meeting him was really unlike anyone else I’ve ever met.”
Russo’s involvement in the PPC has taught him a breadth of knowledge, but most importantly that, even as an adolescent, he can create an impact on the world.
Russo says, “It’s just a matter of getting out and caring enough to do something.”