How a photographer’s passion for the planet led to funding the largest endowed scholarship at the nation’s first School of Sustainability
ASU alum Scott Schneider’s generosity will create educational opportunities for students who share his passion for the environment and creating change in the world.
While research continually shows us how distracting our smartphones are, Scott Schneider has found a way to use his own as a means to observe the world around us. Now he’s urging others to follow his lead and protect a planet on the brink.
Schneider, like the majority of the population, never leaves home in Long Island without his iPhone. But this Arizona State University alumnus is rarely buried in texts, emails or blitzes of social media notifications that can overtake our attention. He’s too busy collecting trash on his daily walks and turning them into art through photography.
They’re pictures that express his appreciation for the environment. Pictures that express his concern about the environment. He doesn’t go out to take pictures. He takes pictures because he’s out.
“As we become increasingly distracted by all our devices, we can have the tendency to overlook small disasters beneath our feet,” Schneider says. “We can also fail to notice the beautiful moments present in nature. It is my hope that photography will inspire others to notice the world around them and that they will want to preserve its natural beauty by taking action.
“We can’t do this while you’re plugged in and tuned out.”
That’s why, he says, “I’m asking everyone to unplug, look around, and get the small picture. Turn off your blinders of technology, and by noticing the small detail of a piece of litter, a fallen petal, or an interesting bit of rust, maybe we can then look up and notice the big picture, which is that the world needs our help.”
A flattened Budweiser can was the star of one of his first such photos. Schneider was awed by its splendor when framed in a large size, propelling his push to find beauty in the ugliness of litter. He dubbed the work, “Proud to be an American,” which now has company in “Orange Crush,” “Cupcake Wars” and “Not Cool,” among dozens of others.
“Titles are extremely important to me,” Schneider explains. “They are meant not only to describe the photo, but also to invoke deeper feelings about our impact on the environment.”
Schneider’s passion for the planet is the motivating force that drives his company, Toxic Nature Studios, which features environmental photography that celebrates the majesty of nature and laments its demise.
It’s also the reason he generously gifted ASU’s School of Sustainability with its largest endowed scholarship.
Supporting Sun Devils
Schneider often thinks about what he believes to be a common misconception, pointing to mantras that call for us to “Save the Earth” and “Save the planet.”
“We are not trying to save the planet,” he says. “The planet will be here long after we’re gone. We’re trying to save ourselves and hopefully all the other species that call the planet home. Right now, we’re doing a very poor job of it.”
After graduating from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 1983, Schneider spent the next several decades enjoying a successful career in the garment industry. He never lost touch with ASU, regularly responding to donation requests with much delight. But it wasn’t until he recently returned to campus grounds and learned about the 2006 establishment of the School of Sustainability did he become reinvigorated with Sun Devil pride.
Schneider was drawn to the school’s work toward a better future, and its commitment to making the world more sustainable. The 59-year-old sought to support fellow stewards of the environment.
“That’s why I gave,” he says. “Because I feel like it’s kind of over for people my age. I think that younger people are the ones who are going to have to fix this and break the cycle.”
The Toxic Nature Sustainability Scholarship was awarded to its first recipient in fall 2020. Two more students will receive support in 2021, alleviating financial constraints and allowing them to make a difference in the world by furthering their educational aspirations with a degree from the School of Sustainability.
These are students who, like Schneider, demonstrate an appreciation and concern for the environment. Because of his support, they will be empowered to take action.
“He asked us what the school needed. What was our most pressing need?” remembers Kristen Wolfe, former director of development for the School of Sustainability who now serves in the same role for the ASU Foundation. “For the school, it was scholarship support for our students, for any student who wants to study sustainability. He wanted as many people to study sustainability as possible.”
Wolfe recalls a dinner with Schneider after he presented his work in a photography exhibit at ASU’s Wrigley Hall in 2019. School of Sustainability Dean Christopher Boone was also present, later telling Wolfe, “That was one of the most engaging and interesting dinners I’ve had with a donor.”
Five pieces a day
Schneider and his teenage daughter frequented the playground in Washington Square Park when she was younger. That wasn’t their only routine, though. Before playtime commenced, they made a habit of doing a quick litter cleanup.
One day, while picking up trash, his daughter looked up and said, “Daddy, we are making the Earth smile.” Schneider’s heart melted.
Today, it’s the slogan for Toxic Nature Studio’s sister account, @5pieces_a_day, found exclusively on Instagram: “Help make the Earth smile.”
One look at the account, which features photographs of the litter that Schneider picks up each day, reveals efforts that far surpass a daily gathering of the recommended five pieces.
“It’s a suggestion for others,” he says, “while I set the bar much higher for myself. You may not know what you can do about issues as large as climate change or toxic oil spill, but there is a piece of litter, and anyone can pick it up.”
Schneider does his part no matter where he is in the world. Most days that’s in his hometown of Huntington, New York, where he scans streets, parks, beaches and waterways, appropriately disposing of the trash he collects along the way. He’s been at it for much of his life, though it wasn’t until 2015 when Toxic Nature Studios became a reality — and a trademarked name.
The early stages saw him build his website, toxicnature.com, and expand his social media presence while he continued to take photos and sell them to both corporate and individual collectors to further promote his work — a portion of each sale going to charities that focus on protecting the environment.
Even now, he still only takes photos with his phone.
“I believe the best camera that you have is the one that you have with you,” Schneider says. “It’s so easy for me to notice something, take out my phone, and shoot, and it’s easy to look at the photos later to see if any have made the cut.”
Schneider’s actions inspired Huntington’s town officials to adopt a “Pick Six” litter initiative that encourages residents to pick up six pieces every day and throw them in the trash at Huntington Town Hall. The hope is that it becomes a habitual practice in the same way it has for Schneider, who points to the words of noted environmentalist Robert Swan: “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”
“There was definitely a time when I believed that others more powerful or important than myself would help to solve the world’s problems,” Schneider says. “I came to the realization that I am someone and that I could try and effectuate positive change through my art and my actions.
“Maybe picking up trash is not your thing, but at least noticing it will hopefully prevent you from littering. There are also many other ways to help the planet.”
Recycle more. Speak out. Compost. Eat less meat. Vote for the environment. Donate. Schneider admittedly hasn’t implemented each of these changes — he hasn’t quite gotten the hang of composting — but he’s always trying to do better. Figure out what works for you, he says, and stick with it. Because the Earth needs our help.
In addition to his photos, Schneider has crafted a series of sculptural pieces he’s calling “3D(isasters),” thought-provoking work designed to challenge his viewers to make sense of the quantity of litter displayed in a #FindItFillItContainer — a five-gallon water bottle he found during a litter pickup in Cold Spring Harbor, New York.
“I started filling it up for fun,” he says. “It may seem stupid to do this, but so is trashing the planet.”
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