Punahou Project Citizen: Free the Sea of Debris

Maya ’16 and Nic ’16

July 5, 2012

This past spring, students in eighth-grade social studies learned about civic responsibility through participating in Project Citizen, a national curricular program from the Center for Civic Education that promotes competent and responsible participation in local and state government. Below, a student team reflects on the project experience in an essay published by Civil Beat on June 28, 2012.

During the last two months of our eighth-grade year, our class participated in Project Citizen, in which we chose a problem affecting our community, researched the issue, and tried to find a way to help solve the problem. We researched many topics such as gang violence, our sewage system, childhood obesity, and youth homelessness, but settled on marine debris. Marine debris impacts Hawai‘i’s citizens, the environment and economy in countless direct and indirect ways.


After much debate, we agreed that the ban on plastic bags would help to reduce the amount of marine debris more than any other alternative solution. Since we live in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, we are surrounded by marine life and fragile ecosystems. By littering and dumping debris and plastic bags in our unique and gorgeous oceans, we have endangered the lives of native species like the honu (sea turtle), nai‘a (dolphin), and moli (Laysan albatross.)

Plastic bags are photodegradable, which means that they break down into microscopic pieces, but they never fully degrade. This is extremely deleterious to our ‘aina because in our near future, Hawai‘i’s landfills will overflow with the excess amounts of plastic that we produce and use. That plastic trash will somehow end up in our oceans, where marine life ingest it and absorb the lethal chemicals that leach from the bags while they float in the ocean. The chemicals and plastics may move up the food chain and eventually find their way into humans.

We did research on the topic, watched educational videos and went on a field trip to Maunalua Bay and the Waikiki Aquarium. Guest speakers came and talked with us about the growing problem of marine debris. Kaniela Lyman-Mersereau, a volunteer for Project Kaisei, a nonprofit committed to finding solutions to marine debris, spoke to us about limiting our purchase of items whose containers will end up as trash. We also heard a presentation by Joel Paschal, who sailed from California to Hawai‘i on a raft named “Junk,” which was made of recycled plastic bottles and other marine debris items. While the purpose of his voyage was to raise awareness about the problem, we learned that plastic bags and bottles could be put to interesting uses. He also opened our eyes to how much plastic trash was really out there in the world’s environment.

Our science teacher Mrs. Shimabuku provided us with the opportunity to see dissected albatross birds that have been affected by marine debris. Their dissected stomachs, or boluses, were full of plastic debris, showing us how plastic was able to kill animals. This was a great hands-on learning experience for all of us.

To help solve this problem, our class decided to support SB1370, which required businesses to distribute biodegradable and compostable bags. Unfortunately, after writing letters of support to the state senators voting on this bill, the senators responded that SB1370 was not moving forward in the 2012 session. We then supported HB1601, which was a complete ban on plastic bags in Hawai’i. We made display boards, a Keynote presentation, and a portfolio about our chosen policy, alternative policies and our solution to the marine debris problem and gave presentations to governmental representatives.

Our class’s personal solution to this problem of marine debris was to hold a bake sale to raise funds to adopt endangered marine animals from the Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund. The Fund will use the money to protect our adopted animals from marine debris and to clean Hawai‘i’s beaches so that fewer animals become injured and die due to debris. We held the sale at lunch one day, and raised enough money to adopt to adopt two humpback whales, two Hawksbill turtles, two monk seals and a Hawai‘i coral reef!

On behalf of the whole class, we would like to thank Mrs. Anderson for all of her efforts and support throughout this project. She has helped us and guided us throughout this learning process and without her we would never have experienced this wonderful opportunity. Thank you very much, Mrs. Anderson!

Project Citizen, a national curricular program from the Center for Civic Education is a curricular program for middle, secondary, and post-secondary students, youth organizations, and adult groups that promotes competent and responsible participation in local and state government. The program helps participants learn how to monitor and influence public policy. In the process, they develop support for democratic values and principles, tolerance, and feelings of political efficacy.

The Project Citizen program is administered with the assistance of a national network of state and congressional district coordinators in every state and is conducted with the assistance of the National Conference of State Legislatures. It is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and by act of Congress. Additional funding at the state level is also provided by an increasing number of state legislatures.


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