The same groups of students worked as researchers, using a variety of real-world skills to come to terms with the scale and scope of this problem, and soon realized that they had become more knowledgeable about it than most adults. They quickly recognized that engineering a way to remove plastic from the oceans on a large scale would be a massive challenge — to say the least.
Meanwhile, many students became motivated to fight plastic pollution in other ways. Some began thinking about ways for us to produce and consume less plastic, and others were looking for ways to prevent it from getting into the oceans in the first place.
As a final element to the unit, many of the fifth-graders chose to write to publications like National Geographic, policymakers like Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, personalities like Oprah, and companies like Nestle Waters. They wanted to promote changes in behavior and cause these companies and influential people to join in the effort.
They put their opinion writing skills to work and we helped them craft persuasive letters and essays that would be suitable for a wider audience.
Because they were working on a real problem and engaging with an audience beyond the school walls, this project invoked many students' sense of justice and ignited their passion. As a result, many of us have changed our plastic use habits, and as a school community we have discovered that there are lots of other people and organizations who care deeply about keeping our oceans healthy and reducing disposable plastic use, and our network of connections and potential partners in creating solutions is growing.
We hope you can hear the passion and urgency in the voices of our students who chose to submit letters to The Almanac, and that they inspire you to share your own perspectives and to take on this and other environmental challenges along with us.
Laurel 5th grade teaching team
Randy Chase, Sandra Horwitz, Nicholas Keller, Charlene Mattos, Gina Watkins.
(Editor's note: The following are excerpts, edited for space, from the Laurel School fifth-graders' letters to The Almanac. Two of the children's parents requested that their last names not be included.)
Microbeads: in the ocean and the food chain
We need to ban microbeads for all of our products. The law President Obama passed in 2015 really made a big difference, but it didn't ban all microbead products. Products such as sunscreen, makeup and detergent still have have microbeads in them. Every time you use one of these products you may be washing tiny plastic microbeads down the drain that are not only polluting the oceans but are ending up in the food we eat, too.
According to treehugger.com, about 800 trillion microbeads enter the ocean each day, and add to the 8 million metric tons of plastic that is already in the ocean. Not only do microbeads stay there and get eaten, but they get worse. The microbeads soak up the toxins in the water; they can even soak up so much toxins that one microbead can be 1 million times as toxic as all the water around it. So not only are the animals eating plastic, but poisonous toxins too. And as the plastic slowly works itself up the food chain, it can easily end up on our plates in the fish and crustaceans we eat. For example, for every six oysters you eat you could be eating up to 50 microbeads.
You can act by not using microbead products. The things to look for on the labels that mean microbeads are polymethyl and polyethylene.
Plastic hurts us as well as fish
Did you know that 160,000 plastic bags are used every second worldwide? And a lot of that ends up in the sea. There is so much plastic in the ocean that over 44 percent of all seabirds have either eaten or gotten entangled in plastic.
In 2008, a sperm whale washed up in Point Reyes with 50 pounds of trash in its stomach. That is about 220 times less than the sperm whale's actual weight!
Plastic is damaging the food chain. Say a small fish eats a piece of plastic. Then a bigger fish eats the fish. Now the second fish has plastic in its stomach. ... Then, say a fisherman catches that fish and eats it. Now the fisherman has plastic in his stomach too. Plastic can hurt us as much as it hurts the fish.
The average time that a plastic bag is used is 12 minutes. And we use a trillion plastic bags every year. Also, the average family uses 60 plastic bags on four visits to the supermarket. That's a lot of plastic bags.
Time to change our wasteful habits
There is so much plastic trash in our ocean that even the most innocent of creatures can't help but entangle themselves in it. This may cause animals to seriously injure themselves, and can even strangle them, causing them to die drowning in the very ocean that they live in.
Some people might say that we can't live without plastic. However, they're wrong. There are biodegradable alternatives. Plastic "just sits and accumulates in landfills or pollutes the environment," says lifewithoutplastic.com, a website about how to live without plastic.
What can you do? An easy way to help is by cutting packing bands' circles apart into strips before you throw them away. This will make animals less likely to get tangled up in them.
Also, start a beach or neighborhood cleanup! Help clean the environment of plastic waste and litter. To make sure a runaway plastic bag doesn't fly to the ocean, tie the bag into a knot. This will makes sure that the bag doesn't cause any more trouble.
We must protect our environment, animals and ourselves from the dangers of plastic pollution, in the air, on land, and especially in the ocean. Plastic waste never fully leaves the earth, and it's a shadow covering our future. Our fragile ecosystem is weakening every day from humans' wasteful habits. It's time to change those habits.
Got plastic? Let your creative side take over
In the ocean there are five big gyres of trash that go on for miles and there is trash at every level. There is so much plastic in the gyres that we can't even take it out in the time span of a decade, but we can still do something about it.
One thing we can do is to stop for a second and think before you put plastic in the garbage or recycling — think if you can use it for something else.
You can make so many things out of (used) plastic that would cost so much more going to the store and buying them. So even though it might just look like an empty plastic bottle, let your creative side take over and make something out of it.
Plastic harms the ocean and reefs
There is a problem in the ocean — plastic! Plastic is ruining the ocean. There is plastic stuck in the Atlantic Ocean that is the size of Europe.
Plastic is harming sea life. When fish swallow plastic or micro-plastics, it can harm their digestive system and micro-plastic can poison them. Also, the toxins harm the reefs.
Plastic is getting into us too! When fish swallow or eat plastic, it stays there forever. When plastic turns into micro-plastics, fish swallow it and we eat the fish that ate the plastic!
We think you should consider this because it is a serious problem.
Maddie B. and Manbir S.
Ideas for replacing your plastic bags
This year, 5 trillion plastic bags will be consumed. That's 160,000 a second! Put one after another they would go around the world seven times every hour and cover an area twice the size of France, says the website theworldcounts.com.
When people litter with plastic bags, or even if they end up in the trash, one good gust of wind makes the plastic bag go airborne. Once it takes off, there is no stopping it — the plastic bag is on its long journey to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch!
Plastic bags are hurting the world and don't deserve to be around. If you want to make a difference, replace those old plastic bags and use something better. Replacement ideas include paper grocery bags, mason jars (instead of using plastic bags for storage), reusable cloth shopping bags, shopping bags made from recycled materials, mesh shopping bags, mesh produce bags for fruit and vegetables, wax paper (don't use plastic baggies for sandwiches — use wax paper!) and cardboard boxes.
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