Students stop single-use plastic at its source

By Jennifer Simms

September 2019

From afar, the iconic sandy beaches of Santa Barbara, California, appeared pristine. Up close, students from Goleta Family School, a NOAA Ocean Guardian School, could see that the data they collected through shoreline surveys told a different story.

As a part of their weekly cleanup at a local beach, the students noticed that one beachfront area in particular started to show a pattern. The students observed and recorded the same items over and over again: plastic wrappers from mints.

five people stand behind a table at an outreach event displaying informational items about marine debris
Students from the Goleta Family School explain to the negative impact of single-use items to the public. Photo: Goleta Family School

They soon realized that the plastic wrappers came from the same source, a local beachfront restaurant. The students decided to speak with the owners and encourage them to stop giving away individually packaged mints. As an alternative, they asked the restaurant to purchase mints in a different way. The restaurant agreed to make the change, and as the students continued to monitor the beach, they began to see tangible results. Over time, they documented fewer wrappers!

a table filled with sewn bags with four stainless steel straws inside available for purchase.
Students offered visitors options for creating a shopping bag from an old t-shirt and sold sewn bags with stainless steel straws as an alternative option to single-use plastic items. Photo: Goleta Family School

After this initial success, the students at Goleta Family School continue to fight against marine debris in their community. The school recently implemented a ban on plastic baggies on school property, which resulted in the elimination of over 1,200 baggies from the landfill. The school also created “Waste Free Wednesday,” a litter-free lunch campaign that encourages students, parents, and the local community to keep Wednesday lunches trash free.

Other students in Santa Barbara started to follow a similar path. Students from Adams Elementary - Ocean Guardian Ambassadors participated in a Santa Barbara City Council meeting at City Hall to address their concerns about the negative impacts of marine debris. The students shared information with council members about the “Skip the Straw” campaign, a collaborative project with two local non-profits. Restaurants were also informed of this campaign where they discussed the importance of skipping the straw with restaurant managers.

As a result of their hard work, the Ocean Guardian Ambassadors were awarded the “Explore Ecology’s Environmental Stewardship Award” and the “Looking Good Santa Barbara Spirit of Service Award” for waste reduction. Both of these efforts were made possible through the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Ocean Guardian School Program and the grants that both schools have received to conduct these projects.

A young student holds up a container filled with red, plastic straws. She had placed a sticker on the side of the container that says “Skip the Straw”.
An Ocean Guardian Student from Adams Elementary shows off their campaign by displaying the “skip the straw” sticker being used at a restaurant. Photo: Claire Fackler/NOAA

Marine debris is a pervasive problem but as these students learned, anyone can be a part of the solution. Students of all ages have the power to make change. For more information on how you can be a part of the solution at school visit the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s How To Help page for ideas for what students and teachers can do to make a difference.

Jennifer Simms is a communication and education specialist for NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.