Jacquelene Fernandez, 11, stared in disbelief at the folded object on the parking lot pavement in the busy, Sherman Way mini-mall.
"Is that a diaper, Mrs. Strickland?" she asked her teacher Friday.
"Yes," said Sue Strickland. "It's plastic, and it's not biodegradable."
Surprised that someone would use a parking lot to dispose of a diaper, the sixth-grader picked it up and put it in a bag.
Fernandez was among 1,000 students from Coldwater Canyon Avenue Elementary School who fanned out and cleaned up their North Hollywood neighborhood Friday.
Inspired by the upcoming Earth Day on Sunday, they plucked litter from almost all the lawns, gardens, sidewalks and gutters in a half-mile radius northeast of the school.
The group found not only soiled diapers but bones, cigarette butts, empty potato chip bags, advertising flyers, plastic hangers, soft-drink cups, straws, tennis balls, paper towels, a heavy industrial worker's glove, and pieces of metal and aluminum.
Strickland, a sixth-grade teacher who planned the event with second-grade teacher Sue Hammarlund, led her class north on Coldwater Canyon Avenue to Sherman Way, then east to Bellaire Avenue and south back to the school.
On an overcast day, she exhorted students, who wore plastic gloves, to make every inch of ground litter-free.
"Look over here, we've got lots of trash," she said, pointing to a strip of bushes beside a dental office as the class turned from Sherman Way onto Bellaire. "This is where you live. You don't want to live in a garbage dump, do you?"
Three students rushed willingly to the strip of bushes, pulling papers from the small wood chips surrounding the foliage.
"This is kind of fun, isn't it?" one said.
Afterward students said they had learned a great deal about the environment from the cleanup and their studies this year.
"They say stuff about what a beautiful world it is," said Fernandez. "But it's not a beautiful world. There's trash all over the lawns. If you walk all over the neighborhood, you will never see a spot where there's not a lot of trash in one area.
"But people can fix the world if they all go out together and fix their little part."
Hammarlund and Strickland realized their mutual interest in the environment over lunch one day several months ago and proposed the cleanup to principal Jilanne P. Fager.
"I had some students in line and there was paper on the ground," said Hammarlund. "I asked them to pick up the litter. Instead of the paper, they went into the quad area to pick up some leaves.
"I realized that we had some educating to do. One of my kids said he threw paper on the ground. He didn't know he wasn't supposed to."
"Even though they are children, they can make a difference," said Strickland. "They can set an example for other children. They can set an example for adults.
"I teach sixth grade. In 10 years my students are going to be voters. If they do not grow up with an awareness of environmental problems, it's not going to be important to them as adults."
Hammarlund wants students to realize that their school cafeteria uses 1,000 Styrofoam, non-recyclable trays at lunch every day. "If we use 1,000, think of how much trash the Los Angeles Unified School District creates unintentionally each day," she said.
"I want the upper grades to write the Board of Education urging them to use recyclable paper," she said.
She also hopes to continue the neighborhood cleanup each month. "I don't want to stop now that Earth Day will be over," she said. "I don't want them to forget."