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Trash art with kids: A gateway to understanding plastic pollution

Last Friday morning I stood in front of an auditorium filled with 220 third-grade students, who sat cross-legged on the floor, squirming and chattering. One teacher came up and shushed them, putting the spotlight on me.

As a science writer and artist covering the story of plastic pollution, I began giving lectures about my work to teens and adults a little over a year ago. I do not usually speak to young children. Because the story of plastic pollution is intertwined with issues of environment, science, politics, economics, culture and corruption, I had thought much of the story would be over their heads.

So when accepted the invitation to speak to and make art with the entire third grade at Maplewood Intermediate School, I prepared and gave my lecture, and the art workshop that followed it, by thinking like a kid. Doing so meant cutting to the core of the issue: What is plastic pollution, how is it bad, why should you care about it, and what can you do about it?

During my in-school lecture, I started by introducing myself and my job in as few words as possible: “I make money by going on adventures where I write stories about nature and science; and take photos of people, places and animals.”

Then I got into the focus of my presentation: sailing across the North Pacific Gyre, otherwise known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—the most polluted stretch of ocean in the Pacific. I showed the students photos from my time at sea. The photos included images of household objects like shampoo bottles, toys and a dustpan, which we had scooped straight out of the sea—more than a thousand miles from the nearest landmass where people might be using those items. I hoped doing so would help explain a key fact I like to emphasize in my teen and adult lectures: That plastic pollution starts on land, with us, and the items we choose to use—whether it’s the juice boxes in our lunch boxes or asking our parents for a new toy made of plastic.

I also stepped them through the science we did at sea: Using a special net device—called a manta trawl—to scoop up little pieces of plastic from the waves. I showed them photos of different-sized pieces of plastic that the trawl picked up, to emphasize the fact that plastic items break up over time—but never go away in the same way a banana peels or paper does. As I clicked through images of the sea turtles, albatross and dolphins I saw in Hawaii, I told them that these pieces of plastic can make animals very sick.

While the children did a great job of following along with the science, their favorite part of the lecture, by far, was when I told them about life on a boat.

“Would your mom or dad go to the beach to get water to use to cook a pot of pasta?” I asked the kids.

“EWWW!” they yelled out.

“Well on the boat we used saltwater for cooking to make sure we had enough fresh water to drink,” I explained. “Food tasted very salty.” They made faces when I asked them to imagine what saltwater pasta might taste like.

As I explained more of the nuances of life at sea—a lack of privacy, sleeping in a tiny bunk, saltwater showers—the kids giggled, but did not lose their attention. As I spoke, I looked around and could see young minds thinking. I got insight into what exactly they were thinking about when I took questions at the end of my lecture.

“What did you do on the boat for fun? Was there a TV?”

“Did you ever get tired of eating the same foods over and over?”

“What would you do if you ran out of water?”

Yes, there are risks and discomforts that come along with living on a boat, I explained. But sometimes there is beauty in living with less. I told the students they were now responsible for sharing what they learned that day with others.

“How?” they asked.

*          *          *          *

Thirty minutes after my lecture came to a close, the entire third grade and I were running along a local park’s beach collecting pieces of plastic. Each student tallied up their plastic finds on data sheets created by the Ocean Conservancy. This data would be sent to the Ocean Conservancy, contributing to a global database of beach pollution data.

The third-graders ran up to me, eager to show off their finds.

“A lighter!”

“A bottlecap!”

“A lid!”

“A rock!”

After an hour of cleaning and tallying, the teachers and parents corralled the kids and brought them to the park pavilion. I instructed the students to work together to create artwork from the trash and natural objects they found—to make something that reminded them of what they love most about a day at the beach. I had hoped this would help them understand the potential of art—what I create—to communicate messages about plastic pollution.

I walked around the ten groups of students kneeling and sitting on the ground, waist-deep in garbage, observing them work. I saw a boardwalk, a sailboat, a coral reef and “buoy man,” a human made of trash who was clearly enjoying his day at the beach.

Their work was highly creative, fun and beautiful. After I had taken a photo of each piece, the students, teachers and park staff gathered up all the plastic so they could dispose of it in the trash.

While I was zipping my camera away in its case, a young boy named T.J. quietly approached me.

“Will you show your pictures of our art to my parents?” he asked. “I want them to start using less plastic.”

(All photos ©Erica Cirino)

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