Students take a stand against marine plastic pollution by adopting zero waste practices

By Alyssa Nally

July 2018

What can we do on land to better protect marine environments and the organisms that inhabit them? This past spring, students from across the nation sought to answer this question by participating in the sixth annual Students for Zero Waste Week campaign.

a laysan albatross contemplating a pan of plastic lighters
Plastic debris travels far and wide. Here, a Laysan albatross considers plastic lighters collected by a cleanup crew in the remote and largely uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Photo: David Slater/NOAA

Marine debris is one of the most prevalent pollution issues in our ocean and waterways. Plastic pollution can strangle and entangle animals, be mistaken for food, and leach harmful chemicals into the water. This pollution has reached every part of our planet, including remote islands, with much of it coming from inland. Between March 19th and April 20th, 104 schools from 17 different states and one U.S. territory came together to fight marine debris. Through this campaign, students focused on reducing land-based waste in an effort to protect the overall health of nearby watersheds, national marine sanctuaries, and our one ocean.

During each school’s Zero Waste Week, students adopted the "go green, think blue" slogan, driving home a message about how what we do on land can have an impact on the overall health of marine habitats. Each school had the opportunity to design their own activities, establish waste reduction practices, and conduct community outreach to encourage others to join them in embracing the Zero Waste Week Challenge.

In 2013, a coalition of eight Ocean Guardian Schools in and around the Carmel River watershed in California started Students for Zero Waste Week. Recognizing an opportunity to build this initiative, the NOAA Ocean Guardian School Program provided financial and logistical support to help grow the program to other Ocean Guardian Schools. The campaign has since expanded to numerous states across the country, while continuing to be student-driven and community-based.

students conducting a trash audit
Students at Lafayette Elementary School (Lafayette, California) conducted a trash audit on campus to determine which waste items were most commonly found on their school playground. Photo: Lafayette Elementary

Incorporating the 5Rs

Throughout Zero Waste Week, students embraced the 5R’s approach to waste reduction: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot. For example, students and staff aimed to reduce waste on their campuses by replacing single-use plastic items such as drink bottles, Styrofoam, and utensils with more sustainable alternatives. “My students wanted to promote the use of reusable water bottles as an alternative to single-use plastic water bottles on campus,” says Christina Jahr, an educator at Mesa Union School in Somis, California. With that goal in mind, “they held a classroom competition to determine the highest percentage of students in each class that brought a reusable water bottle each day of Zero Waste Week.” Students and staff in the winning class were awarded with reusable prizes.

student holding a spray bottle
A young student at Happy Valley Elementary in Santa Cruz, California, interacts with a coastal watershed model to understand how trash on land can make its way to the ocean. Photo: Happy Valley Elementary

In addition to replacing single-use items, many schools focused their efforts on reducing waste commonly found on their campus. Students at Calabasas Elementary in Watsonville, California, referred to this task as the “wrapper dash.” Their teacher Laura Arnow describes the success of their efforts with excitement: “We had about 12 kids and they would go out for exactly 15 minutes on Friday afternoons to see how many wrappers they could pick up. From a high of 373 wrappers just before our Zero Waste Week began, we dropped by almost half to 191 after Zero Waste Week.”

Not only did students work to reduce waste on their school campuses, but many extended their Zero Waste Week efforts into their local communities. Students from Fituita Elementary, one of 10 schools in American Samoa that participated in this year’s campaign, went beyond their campus to collect and properly dispose of trash in their coastal village. With the help of their teachers, they were able to prevent single-use bottles, cans, and other ubiquitous fragments of plastic from entering the nearby National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa.

Conducting waste audits

Campus and classroom waste audits are another common activity conducted by participating Zero Waste Week schools. As part of this practice, students counted the number of single-use plastic items found in their waste bins before the start of and at the end of Zero Waste Week. Using these data, students calculated percentage change for each type of plastic item found in the trash. Significant reductions in the use of single-use plastics on campus reveals that these students’ efforts are truly making a difference.

Waste audits often inform campus leaders of the issue of plastic pollution. Through this campaign, individual schools are paving the way for other schools in their district to adopt similar waste reduction methods. “We became a pilot ‘strawless’ school – only two in our district of Miami-Dade County, the third largest school district in the nation,” says Hannah Purcell, an educator at Air Base K-8 Center in Homestead, Florida. “This effort is being shared with other district schools.”

In addition to sharing zero waste techniques among schools, many classrooms also focused on sharing the zero waste message with their family members. Teachers at Big Sur Charter School in Monterey, California, sent their students home with at-home waste audit ideas and questionnaires, which helped to inform families on how to be better zero waste “warriors” every day.

graphic showing waste audit data
A sampling of waste audit data collected by students during this year's Students for Zero Waste Week campaign. Image: Alyssa Nally/NOAA

Make art not trash

Incorporating art into their outreach efforts has proven to be successful for many Zero Waste Week schools. Murals, posters, informational videos, and public service announcements are a few of many artistic avenues used by students. Students at Watsonville School of the Arts in Watsonville, California, created “go green, think blue” posters to share the campaign’s message with their fellow peers. In addition, Vineyard Montessori School in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, took time during Zero Waste Week to create reusable cloth napkins for each student.

Megan Davis, an educator at Franklin Elementary School in Port Angeles, Washington, says that Franklin “classrooms used recycled materials to make bee houses, planters, and other art projects.” A visual display using lunchtime trash was installed on this campus to inform students about the impact of each waste item.

hand-drawn poster depicting a zero waste week pledge
Second grade students at St. Andrew’s Day School in Edgewater, Maryland, celebrated their third year of participation by creating a student pledge poster. Image: St. Andrew’s Day School

Zero waste way

students for zero waste week logo

Although the campaign only required one week of participation, several schools chose to host a Zero Waste Month on campus instead. Through continuous participation, students helped to transform the short-term focus of Zero Waste Week into a zero waste way. By making changes in their daily routines and educating others to do the same, students helped to reduce the impact of marine debris on their local waterways and ocean, protecting these ecosystems and their inhabitants.

Want to learn more about how you can join the movement? Check out the Students for Zero Waste Week webpage for more information.

Alyssa Nally is the program coordinator for the NOAA Ocean Guardian School Program.