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Students Work To Reduce Ocean Trash, One Spork At A Time

Joanna Greene

A new educational program is working to stop marine debris before it starts. Students from schools across the Kenai Peninsula have partnered with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies to cut down on their consumption of single-use plastics.

Even on the most remote beaches in Alaska, trash is a problem.

According to a recent study, coastal cleanups in five of Alaska’s national parks collected over 22,000 pounds of marine debris in 2015. That’s about the same weight as a school bus.

Henry Rieske is an environmental educator with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies.

“Eighty percent of this marine debris is coming from just everyday use items on land. It’s water bottles, Ziploc bags, things like that,” said Rieske. “That sort of thing is something that’s a personal choice. The real key to changing this marine debris problem, at least with this large source coming from land, is changing the culture and peoples’ choices.”

The Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies is working to do just that through a one-year education program in local schools. The organization received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to fund the program for just over $231,000 dollars.

A total of 15 classes across 11 local schools are participating in the program, including Port Graham, Nanwalek, Razdolna and McNeil Canyon Elementary. As part of the program, students plan a school-wide project that will help reduce waste.

Rieske says a big source of plastic waste is the school lunchroom.

Credit Joanna Greene
The students are tracking plastic spork usage as part of the project.

“The schools in all our area use plastic sporks that come wrapped in a plastic bag with a plastic straw and a napkin attached. If you can get reusable silverware and wash that yourself, you can get rid of all those sources of plastic,” he said.

Joanna Greene’s sixth grade class at McNeil Canyon Elementary is one of the groups involved in the Coastal Studies program. They’ve been working to replace plastic sporks at their school with reusable silverware.

Unlike some schools, McNeil has a dishwasher used to wash reusable lunch trays. Greene said this was an important factor for her students when selecting a project.

“All the kids said well, we already have to wash things. It wouldn’t be any extra just to put the silverware in with the trays already,” said Greene.

Sixth grader Eryn Field said she never realized just how much plastic waste her and her classmates were generating each day.

“The plastic can never really go away. It might shrink and get smaller but there’s always little molecules of plastic in the ocean,” said Field.

The students are now fundraising to buy 150 sets of metal silverware for the school. They've also collected over 1500 sporks to build a “spork dragon” mascot.

Credit Joanna Greene
The McNeil spork dragon mascot

The project goes beyond sporks, however. Student Mylan Johnson said they’ve much more aware of the plastics they use now.

“In the afternoon, our class has a snack. If somebody brings a plastic bag and it’s still a little clean, our class recycles it,” said Johnson.

The marine debris educational program will continue through the end of the 2017 school year.

The following groups are participating in the program: McNeil Canyon Elementary (instructor: Joanna Green); West Homer Elementary (Shellie Worsfold, Robyn Walls, Ashley Hanson); Port Graham School (Colby Way); Nanwalek School (Teri Gentry); Soldotna Montessori Charter School (Terri Carter, Matt Faris, Jessica Moore);  Connections Homeschool Program (Derek Bynagle); Homer Flex (Lindsay Martin); Kachemak Selo (Nicole McKenney); Razdolna (Laura Murphy); Polaris School (Andrea Evans); Chapman School (Jon Sharp);  Girl Scouts (Tina Seaton)

Shahla first caught the radio bug as a world music host for WMHC, the oldest college radio station operated exclusively by women. Before coming to KBBI, she worked at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento and as a science writer for the California Environmental Legacy Project. She is currently completing her Ph.D in ecology at the University of California-Davis, where she studies native bees.