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Click here to learn more about a high schooler's journey to fight plastic pollution and reveal common misconceptions about the waste crisis.

A Period of Consequences or Progress?

August 27, 2019 | Ellie Cowan

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My spark was my ninth-grade biology class. As the school year was coming to an end, my teacher decided to play various movies and documentaries connected to the material we had learned throughout the course. By this time in the school year, I was tired of work, staying up late every night, and listening to teachers lecture, so I expected to fall asleep before the documentary even started. Once the clock struck 8:19, the morning bell rang, and my teacher, Ms. Molina, approached the front of the classroom. She told us we would be watching An Inconvenient Truth, starring Al Gore. The class sighed as they prepared to watch another boring movie for the rest of the period.

Like most of my peers, I was sitting in the back of the classroom, settling into a comfortable sleeping position. As I tucked my head into my arms on the desk, soft music broke the silence of the room. Suddenly, my attention was brought to the screen where terrifying images appeared: forest fires ruining acres of land by the second, vulnerable people waving at helicopters for help in the middle of a flooded town, and power plants and factories emitting pollutants into the air. For the next hour and a half, I was in Al Gore’s world. My eyes were glued to the front of the classroom as he painted a picture of the future, where inadequate action meant environmental degradation. Where ignorance meant a lack of effective legislation. Where climate change meant natural disasters and social injustice. Within a matter of minutes, I found a new curiosity and concern for climate change and everything tied to it.

From the moment I stepped out of that classroom, I became an entirely different person. I could not stop thinking about the future and what it would entail for humankind and the environment. Questions were tossing through my head, like if this problem is so dire, why haven’t I seen any progress in preventing its effects? I could not contain my ideas to myself, and luckily, I discovered that my fellow classmate and friend, Kayla Peale, felt the same way. We were bursting with ideas, so by the beginning of our sophomore year, we created the For A Strawless Sea Club.


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Our mission as a club is to minimize the use of single-use plastics across Arlington and the greater DMV area in order to inspire a more environmentally-conscious atmosphere. In its inaugural year, we did just that; we participated in stream cleanups, partnered with EcoAction Arlington to launch the Straw Free Arlington Campaign, and attended various community events.

My favorite club event so far has been the Eco Teen Action Network Open House, which took place at the Smithsonian National Zoo. There, we gave tourists the opportunity to play trivia games based on plastic pollution. Upon completion, they were given eco-friendly prizes, such as paper straws, reusable water bottles, and gift cards from stores that implement sustainable practices. One trivia question that surprised tourists was that only 9% of plastic in the United States is recycled. Children, parents, and grandparents who came to our table were astounded by this number and they demonstrated genuine concern for the environment. They shared their personal experiences and observations from their communities and asked how they could do more. If we can give people a reason or experience that makes them feel personally connected to the environmental crisis, then we can build up a network of people who can divide and conquer in order to combat this issue.

We have received criticism for the name of the club. People perceive straws as tiny pieces of plastic that make little difference in the grand scheme of environmental problems. However, not only are straws one of the top ten contributors to marine pollution and a source of microplastics, but more importantly, they are symbolic for a much larger problem in the U.S and across the world: waste. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is just one of many examples of how the increasing consumption of plastics and other single-use materials are disrupting our ecosystems. If we can teach people to ditch an item as small as a straw, we can teach them to ditch plastic water bottles, plastic shampoo bottles, and ultimately plastic packaging in general. We are trying to teach people how small changes in one’s routine can lead to a life of sustainability.

When I attended the Eco Teen Action Network Open House in May, Brian Coyle (who works for the Smithsonian Conservation Commons) brought up an interesting point that shines light on a massive problem; as consumers, we have been taught that it is largely our fault for the environmental crisis; we need to use less water, bike more, and hold our families and friends accountable. However, what if we looked at this situation from a different perspective? What if we held the corporations and government responsible for the crisis they are partially causing?

At the end of the day, we can educate our community, spread awareness, and reduce our personal use of single-use plastics as much as we want, but these efforts will only do so much. Ultimately, it will take the participation of corporations and the government to implement stricter legislation. In order to do this, we cannot allow politicians and representatives from these corporations to shy away from this critical issue. As Al Gore said, “if an issue is not on the tips of their constituent tongues, it is easy for them to ignore it”. Without their attention, support, and cooperation, our carbon footprint will only grow larger and larger.

In an effort to address this issue, I have spent the last few months working with a group of teenagers from across the DMV on the potential implementation of a reusable to-go box system at National Landing with involvement from JBG Smith, Building Maintenance Service, the Crystal City Business Improvement District, local non-profits, and hopefully many more organizations. While at first, walking into a conference room with representatives from big corporations was quite daunting, it was not as challenging as it may seem to get people on board. If you have done the research, organize your ideas, and approach the situation with a big heart and an open mind, it is possible to create change.


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So while the documentary I watched while sitting in the back of the classroom on that particular Monday morning was created more than ten years ago, its message still holds true today and is now more important than ever. As Winston Churchill once said, “the era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences.” It is up to us now to make the next ten, twenty, and a hundred years a period of progress rather than of consequences.

Tags: Earth Optimism, Eco-Teen Action Network, Youth