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Written by Roberto M. Robledo
While images on the Internet show a massive island of plastic waste as big as Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean, it doesn’t exist.
“Go on Google Earth and find it,” suggests one scientist. “There is not an island but a global mix of micro- and macro-plastics more troublesome than an island would be.”
Island or not, the students in Jacqueline Bartlett’s fifth-grade class at Spreckels Elementary School want to do something about the growing amount of plastic in the ocean.
On Monday, Barlett’s class will launch a public awareness campaign, urging their schoolmates to reduce their use of single-use plastics by opting for other ways to bring lunch items, snacks and beverages to school. They hope to encourage schoolwide participation with raffle prizes and other goodies.
Armed with colorful posters and articulate leaders, the class has spread the word around school. Their goal is to shrink the shoe size of the carbon footprint their school is leaving on the environment.
The class recently quantified the amount of single-use plastic items found on the school grounds in a four-day period. They counted more than 14,000 pieces of plastic, including bottles, sandwich bags, potato chip bags and plastic containers for individual servings of desserts and snacks. About 60 percent of the waste was sandwich bags; 29 percent was fruit-cup containers, Bartlett said.
The class will conduct another count after the campaign week and compare their results.
Among the areas of learning incorporated into the project are mathematics, science and current events.
Inspired by a teacher program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Bartlett brought the project to her class, which took it up beginning in January.
The three-part pilot program, called the Ocean Plastic Pollution summit, kicked off in the fall. A selection of teachers from around the state attended to learn about dangers of plastics in the oceans and watersheds and plan a class curriculum around the issue.
“Each day, we throw away about 300 million tons of petroleum-based plastic bottles, bags, utensils, packaging and other so-called disposable items. Ironically, these disposable plastics will persist in the environment and travel throughout the global food web virtually forever,” according to summit website.
The summit engaged 68 teachers from pre-kindergarten to high school, said Mary Whaley, teacher programs manager for the aquarium.
This summit is designed for teachers who are ready to go in-depth into plastic pollution issues and solutions with their students.
Sessions focus on content background into the science behind plastics issues, project ideas for the classroom and networking opportunities.
Each received a stipend to use toward materials for their projects. The programs also qualify for college credit and professional growth hours for teachers.
In all, 26 projects are under way, most of them in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, a few in the Central Valley and Southern California.
The teachers heard from environmental and marine science experts and had a chance to network among the group to share ideas for planning and projects.
The teachers will gather for a final meeting in May to share the results of their projects. Student teams will join them and be treated to a night at the aquarium.
Whaley said the aquarium received an overwhelming response from educators to the summit.
“We’re definitely going to continue it,” she said.
The summit is funded by contributions from the Johnson Ohana Foundation and federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Wallace “J” Nichols, research associate at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, said there are three terms commonly misused when referring to the ocean plastics issue: “marine debris, plastic island and garbage patch.”
“You can’t describe it as a patch or an island,” he said. “But those terms have stuck. The idea of an island is provocative and gets the kids’ attention but it is misleading,” he said.
Nichols, who spoke at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Ocean Plastic Summit for teachers, said “these terms obscure the real issue of micro and macro plastics and their chemical signatures pervading our beaches and found in the middle (of the ocean) and inside marine animals.”
“By no means does clarifying (the terms) diminish the urgency to clean up the environment,” Nichols said. “All of beaches around the world have plastic washing up on them.”
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