Conservation & Science

Going to school on plastic pollution

Plastic pollution is everywhere—especially stuff like coffee cup lids and plastic bags, which are used just once before they’re thrown away. You’ve probably come across plastic trash while walking your dog or on your way to the coffee shop. For teachers and students, encounters with plastic trash often happen in the steps between classrooms.

Students ask questions during a talk on the importance of recycling at the Ocean Plastic Pollution Summit.

Working with Monterey Bay Aquarium, they’re doing something about it. For the last five years, teachers and students enrolled in the Aquarium’s Ocean Plastic Pollution Summit have been on a mission: to be a part of the plastic pollution solution.

The Ocean Plastic Pollution Summit began in 2012, after teachers approached the Aquarium’s Education Department staff, eager to learn more about the conservation issues surrounding single-use plastic. They kept finding plastic litter on and around their school campuses—but instead of seeing an insurmountable problem, they saw a teaching opportunity.

The problem of plastic pollution has become a learning platform, one that can empower students to be change agents in their communities.

Through the Summit, we work with teachers to help them develop action-based projects relevant to their students in districts across California and Nevada. Students and teachers have teamed up to change recycling habits, increase access to classroom recycling bins, and encourage kids to drink from the water fountain instead of buying disposable plastic bottles. Since the inception of the Summit, we’ve collaborated with more than 400 K-12 teachers to help them eliminate thousands of single-use plastic items—such as bags, water bottles and lunch spork packets—from their school campuses.

Students present on their project to reduce the sources of plastic pollution.

When we embarked on this journey with teachers, we never imaged how well single-use plastic could serve as a platform for advocacy, leadership and empowerment.

“[The] program has honestly transformed my entire life and how I think about using plastic,” said Tammy Rinkenberger of the Cooper Academy in Fresno.

While most Summit participants work to reduce the amount of plastics on their school campuses, some also hit the streets to involve their broader communities. In 2014, when the California Legislature passed a statewide ban on single-use plastic carryout bags, students from three East Bay middle schools challenged both their peers and community members to pledge against single-use plastic bags—and distributed more than 3,000 reusable shopping bags to replace them.

Franklin High School teacher Renee Link says her students brainstorm ways to reduce their use of plastic and shift to eco-friendly alternatives. “By researching the problem, students become empowered to do their part,” she says.

The “Plastic Bag Monster” shuffles up the Aquarium steps during the Ocean Plastic Pollution Summit.

This year, our teachers are urging their colleagues and family members to do their part. By voting YES on Prop 67 on California’s November ballot, they aim to uphold the first-in-the-nation law to ban single-use plastic retail bags statewide.

Elementary school student Kira K. from Mount Madonna School isn’t old enough to vote, but she knows Prop. 67 will affect her future. “When I walk on the beach I see plastic bags, and I don’t like the idea of that going into our ocean,” she says. “The ocean is meant to be a beautiful place.”

Join the Aquarium’s vision of a plastic-free ocean by voting YES on Proposition 67, the last state measure on California’s long ballot. Save the YES for last!

Learn more about plastic pollution, what we’re doing about it and how you can help.

Featured image: Students share their projects on plastic pollution with guests during the Final Project Symposium at the 2016 Ocean Plastic Pollution Summit.


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