Across the country, concern about the issue of plastic pollution is growing, as stories about whales dying from consuming plastic bags pop up in the news every few months and journalistic outlets like National Geographic capture the issue in striking photographs and videos. The numbers are shocking: there are already more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans, and virtually all seabird species will be consuming plastic by the year 2050.
In response to this crisis, people across the country and across the world have been taking action to both curb their own usage of plastic and urging their governments to help solve this problem. Activists and community members alike have called for bans on the most widespread and unnecessary sources of plastic pollution, including plastic shopping bags and polystyrene takeout containers. Polystyrene containers are particularly egregious contributors to plastic pollution, as they are rarely recycled and take hundreds of years to decompose (if they ever do). As polystyrene bans spread across the country, they are being spearheaded in many places by perhaps unlikely heroes: students of all ages, from elementary school through college.
Some of these efforts have focused on the use of polystyrene containers by school districts and academic institutions. In October 2017, Tulane University’s Undergraduate Student Government followed up a previously-enacted ban on Styrofoam-brand containers with a measure removing all polystyrene from the University’s campus. A group of parents and students in Gloucester, Massachusetts is currently in the process of raising $3,000 from local businesses to raise money for compostable cafeteria trays and help divert over 30,000 trays from the waste stream. In 2016, high school students in Baltimore actually formed their own nonprofit organization (called Baltimore Beyond Plastic) to work on banning the use of polystyrene cafeteria trays in the city’s high schools, resulting in polystyrene packaging being phased out in May of 2017. However, many students have also pushed for action on a wider scale. A group of 4 high school students in York, Maine presented a model ordinance for a polystyrene ban in the town that is currently being worked on and debated, while the citizens of Rockport, Maine will vote on a polystyrene ban ballot measure this fall that was written by a senior at a local high school.
On the other side of the country, the Paso Robles City Council (in San Luis Obispo County, California) has been pushed to reconsider its earlier decision not to pass a polystyrene ban by a group of local high school students who cited concerns about public health and the environmental impacts of polystyrene pollution. Further down the coast, Girl Scout Troops 2406 and 1726 in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles are working on a proposed ban on polystyrene that they hope to present to their local city council in a few months. One member of the troop explained that they were motivated to work on the issue because they “want to make a change in our community so that we can show a good example to the younger kids and the next generation”.
Perhaps the most impressive story of all comes from the Hudson Valley of New York State. A third-grade class at Joseph D'Aquanni West Road Intermediate School in Pleasant Valley learning about the environmental impacts of polystyrene pollution presented their research on polystyrene foam to older classes in the school, wrote letters to government leaders and ultimately addressed the Dutchess County Legislature. In November 2017, their efforts bore fruit as the county executive signed a law prohibiting the use of polystyrene foam cups and food containers in chain restaurants and county facilities! Finally, the young leaders of Baltimore Beyond Plastic decided not to stop at getting polystyrene out of their school system: in April 2018 a ban on polystyrene was implemented through all of Baltimore, and the city council president cited the teens’ advocacy as the main impetus behind his support of the ban.
As the fight to protect our oceans and wildlife from plastic pollution gains steam and bans on polystyrene and other unnecessary sources of plastic pollution become more widespread, it’s inspiring and refreshing to see so many young people take the lead on protecting our planet. Of course, ideas and efforts from people of all ages are needed to tackle the problem of plastic pollution, but with these students leading the charge a plastic-free future seems more possible than ever.