Plastic Pollution Is a Problem — These Kids Are Working for a Solution
By John R. Platt
Sometimes a couple of kids can help change the world.
Siblings Carter and Olivia Ries founded their nonprofit One More Generation (OMG) in 2009, when they were just 8 and 7 years old, out of a desire to protect the world's endangered species. Their journey to heal the planet has taken them around the world, from assisting injured wildlife after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil-spill disaster to delivering thousands of handwritten letters to South Africa's President Zuma, imploring him to do more to end rhino poaching.
Last year Carter and Olivia, now 17 and 16, pointed their attention at one important solution for helping wildlife: getting people and businesses to reduce or phase out their use of disposable plastic, most notably straws, which have been known to injure or kill animals around the world.
Through their One Less Straw campaign, the Georgia-based teens have worked with individual consumers and businesses around the country and the world on issues related to plastic consumption. Carter and Olivia spoke with The Revelator to discuss their campaign, how they work to change minds and habits, and what they see for the future.
Your One Less Straw campaign has really taken off, and several other organizations have joined the call to help reduce the amount of straws or other plastic items from our dinner tables. Are you satisfied with how far things have come so far or do you still see a lot of work left to do?
Olivia: Yes, we're very satisfied with how things are going so far. We started back in October of last year and we've had many big organizations partnered up with us. I do believe we have some more work to do. We'd like to reach out to even more people over time and educate more of today's youth.
Carter: As much as people may have done, we can always do more. There are billions of plastic straws continuing to go into our landfills. I believe that no matter the situation, we all need to continue our work. We need to push on so that the future generations can see how anyone can make a difference.
Obviously this isn't just about straws. What are the real impacts you care about in getting the world to use One Less Straw?
Carter: Our campaign is about the awareness. We believe that education is the key to any problem anyone faces. You can't fix a problem you don't know about. When we give presentations, we don't tell the people what they need to do — we don't force people to change immediately. What we do is we educate them. We want to have a personal impact on every person so that they will resonate with the issue more. That's how One More Generation started, because we educated ourselves on an issue and decided to try and solve it no matter how long it would take. That is the true message we want to leave people with.
Olivia: If you just think about it, plastic has been here for a long time and the first piece of plastic is probably still somewhere on this Earth. Plastic doesn't just go away. Plastic is in our food chain, fish are eating it and getting sick, birds are getting sick, and many more animals are affected by our plastic waste.
On the flip side, what's the biggest objection people or organizations give you to getting rid of straws — and how do you overcome it?
Carter: One of the biggest objections we face with any company or organization when we start is cost. We tend to see that one of the biggest obstacles is the issue of whether they can afford sustainable straws. So we created campaign buttons that say, "We Only Serve Straws Upon Request, Ask Me Why." This starts a conversation with the people who would usually receive a straw and once again they become educated on the issue. In every restaurant we have given these to, we've seen a 70 to 80 percent reduction in plastic straw uses, and from that the restaurant is saving money and has been able to switch to something such as paper straws.
We believe that there is always a solution to an issue if you try. It may take time, but it is possible.
Olivia: Many organizations or restaurants that sign up with our campaign are worried about the cost as well as what the customers will think of either removing all straws or switching to more sustainable straws. Ninety percent of people can live without a straw. Of course there are people with sensitive teeth or medical problems but there are other alternatives such as paper, glass or metal straws.
If we can make so much progress to reduce this one type of single-use plastic, what other types of products or packaging do you think we could start to remove from our plastic "diets"?
Olivia: I think that one other big problem is the small plastic bags we put our produce in at the grocery store. There are many other ways you can carry your fruits and vegetables without using plastic.
Carter: There are so many different types of plastic and things that end up in our landfill that we have found other issues that we want to help fix. We partnered up with Delta Airlines and went to their cafeteria and took notes on what to fix. One of the major issues is the shrink wrap around every container. If you notice, many companies use shrink wrap on many different items and it lands up in our landfill very easily and animals eat it and die. We also noticed in the Delta cafeterias that by not using a straw, people no longer need a lid, thus reducing more plastic from our environment. So there are many things that go along with the straw awareness.
Another issue is the six-can rings around soda cans. Some of the rings get thrown in with the cans and go to the same place, and if the rings are still around the cans, they tend to be thrown away. So there are truly so many problems but we have found that focusing on one at a time and improving that issue, helps so much.
Next year will be OMG's tenth anniversary. Did you ever imagine how far this journey to help wildlife would take you?
Carter: I never believed that this is what I would be doing. Don't get me wrong—it's the best decision we've ever made. If I didn't do OMG for the amount of time we have been, I honestly don't know what I would be doing. The fact that we have been doing this for over half my life continues to surprise me. We meet so many people along the way and to think that everything we are doing started because of cheetahs is still unbelievable. One thing leads to the next and more and more amazing opportunities come with it. I love what I do and would never change anything. One More Generation has changed my life for the better, and I love it.
Olivia: When we first started OMG we didn't think we would get this far or reach as many people as we have. I feel like we've made a big difference, but we can't do this alone. Our goal is to educate others about these issues, so they can go out and make a difference.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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