It started with a fifth grade writing unit on the effect of plastic straws on the environment. It led to international recognition for the Lake Superior Turtles, a trio of students tackling the issue.
Jennifer Sullivan’s class at Great Lakes Elementary School researched extensively before choosing a side.
“The majority of the class chose the side to ban or limit the use of single-use straws,” she said.
They learned many facts.
“We know that straws are too small to be recycled and they take 200 years to decay on their own,” said Faith Colby.
“They’re also ranked the seventh most common piece of trash,” said Vivian Bilden.
When straws end up in lakes and oceans, said Rylie Tepsa, animals are harmed.
Plastic straws affect humans, too.
“I know they decay faster when they’re in the water, but that’s worse for the fish, because they eat the small pieces and then when we eat the fish, there’s plastic in them,” Colby said.
They’re also everywhere. On a trip to Wisconsin Point last week, Colby found 59 straws in about an hour.
It could have stopped there. But the girls wrote a letter to Superior Mayor Jim Paine, who set up a May 29 policy meeting with them. He asked the trio to keep up their community activism.
“The city of Superior only has so much power, but a restaurant owner has absolute power over what they can do in their own restaurant,” Paine said. “So I asked them to take that same energy they approached me with and to approach restaurant owners.”
The girls said they’d already called a few chain restaurants, including Subway and McDonald’s, to ask them to limit the use of plastic straws.
“They said it was more of a government thing, like they had to be told by somebody not to,” Colby said.
Paine encouraged them to reach out to locally-owned restaurants and to offer an incentive -- a “Be Lake Friendly” sticker highlighting the business' commitment to limiting straw use. The students are nearly finished designing it.
“He had us come up with a club name, too, so we’re the Lake Superior Turtles,” Colby said.
Mayors from Great Lakes cities in the United States and Canada met this week in Sheboygan. One of their resolutions involved reducing the amount of plastics entering the Great Lakes.
“This is not just the idea of a couple young children, this is international environmental policy,” Paine said. “This is a really serious problem in Superior and every Great Lakes community.”
He made an amendment to the resolution, specifically naming the three fifth graders and their advocacy in front of the mayors.
“We need actual citizens to be leaders on this issue and be educators,” Paine said. “That’s what these girls are doing. They’re being leaders here. They’re actually pushing policy. This is how it happens.”
Paine has discussed options with other mayors -- providing recycling and trash cans at public beaches, incentivizing restaurants and stores to use biodegradable alternatives to plastic, even policies banning the sale of plastic bottles at city events or properties.
“What happens the first time you say ban plastic, if that’s all you say, the public tends to react very negatively to that,” he said. “They need to understand just how serious a problem this is. And the fact that the solution is actually pretty easy and in a lot of cases is more affordable for the community than to stick with plastic.”
Great Lakes teachers and staff said they were proud of the Lake Superior Turtles.
“ I am beyond impressed with the girls who are trying to educate the community about plastic straw usage,” student assistant Char Ansell said. “They believe starting small and local could be the start of bigger things.”
Whether it’s a policy or a personal practice, Paine said, it can make an impact.
“I hope everybody else will start looking into making better personal choices, start looking for alternatives for plastic in your daily life,” he said.
Sullivan’s class has already started. At a recent field trip to the movie “Aladdin,” half of them brought a reusable straw.
“These students, along with many others in my class, are committed to making people realize that climate change is a real issue that needs to be addressed,” Sullivan said. “They are making small changes in their own lives to recycle better, reduce single-use plastic waste and are truly making the world a better place.”