Eco-Schools USA Case Study: Student Reflections on the Plastics Are Forever Youth Summit
In March, 2011, Paige Dedrick, Caroline Finn and Donata Lorenzo, students at Nichols School, an Eco-School in Buffalo, New York, participated in the Plastics Are Forever International Youth Summit in Long Beach, California. The symposium, sponsored by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, served as a forum for student groups to develop plans to fight the plastic epidemic at school and in their communities. Because plastics cannot be absorbed by the earth, they never disappear, but instead break down into little pieces that attract toxic materials and pollute our environment and food chain. Recently Paige reflected on her experience at the symposium and how it influenced the creation of Plasti-Gone, a Nichols School project that supports the Eco-Schools USA Consumption and Waste pathway.
When I boarded the plane for Long Beach, I had a mental picture of what would comprise a “plastics symposium.” I expected to see pictures of albatrosses dead from plastic consumption and turtles mangled by plastic rings. There definitely were a few of those, but they are the very real result of our actions, and perhaps we should see those images to fully appreciate what we are fighting against, but they can be unpleasant and alienating. What I had not expected was to be greeted by a quintessential California surfer dude who had literally convinced thousands of investors to alter one small corner of the world. I had not expected to be told that being an environmental superhero should be energizing and satisfying.
“Do this work only if you can love it,” pronounced keynote speaker Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, Research Associate at California Academy of Sciences and founder/co-director of Ocean Revolution. It was a common theme throughout the weekend. I never imagined that people whose work is so important could so easily laugh at their own shortcomings. J. Nichols, who is easily among the most inspirational speakers I have ever heard, told us horrifying nightmare-stories about his early days of public speaking. Later, when our group was called upon to present our plan to the symposium, we could relate to his recollections of heavy blushing and sweating palms. We quickly learned that the first order of business if you hope to make a positive change in the world is to conquer stage fright.
I knew by the end of the first speech that my expectations of a doom and gloom conference were the antithesis of the seminar I was attending. Instead of dispirited environmentalists, exhausted from preaching the same message, the Plastics Are Forever (PAF) Youth Summit was chock-full of plastic-related-jokes (funnier than you might imagine), found plastic collections, and optimistic, animated compatriots. No one was lecturing the 100 students about how we were ruining the planet. No one was telling us that our earth was beyond repair. I expected to leave feeling just a little more desperate and prematurely haggard. I have never been so happy to be wrong before. I left PAF feeling completely capable and enthusiastic.
Sometimes, the high school dynamic can be disadvantageous for someone interested in sustainability. Remembering that re-usable water bottle is not always easy, and recycling the one you had to buy is not always convenient; for a community of busy and academically engaged students, convenience and ease take priority. At times I have found it discouraging that my peers and I are not always capable of accomplishing all that we should in the ‘green’ department. Nichols School’s sponsorship of our attendance at PAF forced me to realize how important this work is. Sure, trigonometry and French conjugations absolutely should be mastered, but I recognized that the duty of stewardship is just as vital. I know that I express the gratitude of all three of us for this incredible opportunity to learn from, as Caroline would put it, “important people [who] are saving the world.” We accept the implicit challenge, and we will endeavor to spread our passion throughout our student body. We were given an enormous privilege and we plan to respond with accountability.
We are responsible for our planet because we live here and because we admire it. I think that sometimes we accept arguments of ease as valid because we forget how beautiful and generous the world is. “Live like you love the world, because you do,” was just one more brilliant phrase from J. Nichols. The PAF summit reinforced our camaraderie with the earth and with each other—the message heard over and over again was that friendship and understanding is the only way to combat this plastic plague. Emphasis was justly placed on the power of each person in the room to make a vast difference with just a little personal change. Saving the world is not as massive a proposition as we allow ourselves to think. With a little commitment and a lot of love it is practically already achievable.
Plasti-Gone is a student-run initiative aimed at eliminating disposable plastic on school campuses. It connects schools in the Great Lakes region in a fight against disposable plastics. Each participating school signs the Plasti-Gone Pledge, and then takes steps outlined in the pledge to achieve a plastic free campus. There are three levels of achievement (albatross, sea turtle and seal) that a school can work toward.
Click here to learn more about the Plasti-Gone initiative.