Are you smarter about plastic pollution than a 5th grader?

Students in California are racking up some impressive reduction numbers

Ocean debris; photo credit NOAA

Ocean debris; photo credit NOAA.

Last spring Michael Terwilliger’s fifth grade class at Kenwood School in Northern California participated in the National Marine Sanctuaries Ocean Guardian Program, using a $4,000 grant to educate their community about marine debris and offering discounted recycling products. Student Grace McCaull published an article about the project for the Kenwood Press, and this year the class has a $3,800 grant to do a research project on the environmental benefits of native plant gardens. Below is a version of that story co-authored by student and teacher, with tips about how you and I can follow their example. —Stephanie Losee, Tech Page One staff

Do you use a reusable lunch box, sandwich wrap, or water bottle instead of plastic bags or bottles? If you do, keep going. But if you don’t, here’s why you should.

Every day countless seabirds, fish, and marine mammals such as sea turtles, whales, and seals, die because of plastic pollution in our oceans. They may become entangled in abandoned fishing lines or nets, plastic tarps, or other plastic debris and then drown, starve, or become easy targets for predators. Or they may ingest small plastic items or pieces, which may lead to choking, starvation, or poisoning. To a sea turtle a plastic bag may look like a jellyfish, and to a seagull small pieces of plastic may look like fish eggs.

In recent years, people have become alarmed by large “garbage patches” containing plastic and other types of debris that have appeared in our oceans. Estimates of the sizes of these patches and exactly how much plastic debris they contain vary, but regardless of their size and volume, we know that these plastics pose an ongoing threat to marine life.

How does plastic debris make its way to the ocean? According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “All types of marine debris can be traced to one source – people. People’s mishandling of waste materials and a host of other items while on land constitutes the bulk of the marine debris problem. Debris is also blown into the water or carried by creeks, rivers, storm drains and sewers into the ocean.” In our local Sonoma Valley Watershed, our debris can be washed into Sonoma Creek by feeder creeks or storm drains and then carried to San Pablo Bay, and then to San Francisco Bay, and then out the Golden Gate to the open ocean.

What can we do to help solve this problem? Much of the plastic garbage in our oceans comes from “single-use plastics” that we use only once and then throw away. According to Statistic Brain, 1 million plastic bags are used globally every minute. Americans alone use 100 billion each year.

Other culprits include plastic bottles, cups, and packaging. One solution for reducing the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans is to cut back on our use of these kinds of plastics simply by replacing them with easily available products such as reusable lunch boxes and lunchbox inserts from Laptop LunchesNew Wave Enviro and PlanetBox; water bottles from Klean Kanteen and CamelBak; reusable sandwich and produce wraps, and food containers.

Last year the fifth grade class at Kenwood School participated in the Ocean Guardian program, which is funded and supported by the federal government agencies responsible for protecting the health of our oceans – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Marine Sanctuaries.

As Ocean Guardians, our goal was to inspire our school and community to start using reusable items instead of single-use plastics, beginning with lunch. We conducted an education program to inform people about the dangers of plastics in our oceans and how they can reduce the amount of plastics that reach waterways by switching from single-use plastics to reusables.

This included presentations at school assemblies, an article in our local newspaper, and an “Ocean Night” event at our school. By using a portion of our grant monies we were able to offer the Kenwood community the opportunity to purchase reusables at highly discounted prices. By the end of the year we sold over $3,000 worth of reusable items to Kenwood parents, students, staff and community members. We also designed and purchased 550 reusable shopping bags, which were given to local markets for distribution to their customers.

Finally, at the beginning of the year we did a survey of lunches at our school and counted the number of single-use plastic items we found. At the end of the year we conducted another survey and found that use of single-use items had been drastically reduced. For example, plastic bags had been reduced by 59 percent, plastic spoons by 75 percent, and plastic cups by 38 percent.

To do your part, take a close look at the lunch you pack for your child or yourself and at what you use to store food in your refrigerator or cupboards. Note any single-use plastics, and replace those items with reusable products. Even a fraction of the reduction numbers we saw in our community can go far to save the ocean and its inhabitants — one reusable item at a time.

Grace McCaull and Michael Terwilliger
Grace McCaull (pictured) is a sixth-grader and Michael Terwilliger is a fifth-grade teacher at Kenwood School in Northern California.
Grace McCaull and Michael Terwilliger
Tags: Corporate Responsibility,Downtime,Education