Can You Be Plastic Free?

November 4, 2011

The images were devastating in their simplicity: Plastic debris — water bottles, fishing nets, cheap toys — sullying otherwise empty beaches in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The trail of trash extended as far as the eye could see.

“You’re looking at the most remote section of the most remote archipelago on earth. No people live here. But look: that’s how pervasive this problem of marine debris is,” said ‘Aulani Wilhelm, superintendent of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the world’s largest protected marine area.


Wilhelm, keynote speaker at the Service Learning Teacher Institute on Oct. 27, 2011, explained how a proliferation of durable, disposable plastic goods is swirling through the Pacific, destroying marine life, damaging ecosystems and marring beaches faster than crews can clean up. Much of the garbage originates on land, traveling on ocean currents after entering coastal watersheds in communities where too many people choose the short-term convenience of using plastic cups, plates, cutlery and the like over the long-term health of the planet.

“Why are we using some of the most durable material produced on earth (various forms of plastic) for single-use purposes? That is the essential question,” Wilhelm said, as images of marine debris filled the screen. “To have any significant impact we really have to change — on a massive scale — the way we live.”

Hence the challenge inherent in the 9th annual Institute, “Can You Be Plastic Free? Schools Reducing Single-Use Plastics for Hawai‘i’s Health.” Presented by Punahou’s Luke Center for Public Service and the nonprofit Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation, the seminar brought together about 100 educators and advocates eager to learn about the issue and share engaging, useful lessons on the topic, in keeping with the Institute’s goal of helping public and private school teachers develop curricula related to service learning, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.

Besides Wilhelm, the audience heard from Joel Paschal, who in 2008 sailed from Long Beach, Calif., to Honolulu on a raft made from 15,000 discarded plastic water bottles to raise awareness about marine debris; Noelani Elementary School teacher Lianne Morita, whose first-graders did a multipart project discouraging the use of plastic grocery bags; Punahou Academy science teacher Terry Yamamoto-Edwards, whose marine biology students built a Big Bottled Water Bin highlighting the downside of bottled-water consumption; Kahuku High & Intermediate School teacher Uila Vendiola, whose students audited the amount of waste produced on the entire campus; and Punahou student Kylie ’12, who decried “the ridiculous pandemic” of plastic water bottles.

Every Institute includes interactive elements, and at this event participants sorted, categorized and weighed debris cleared from Malaekahana Beach on O‘ahu’s North Shore. Later, dinner became its own hands-on activity, as ti leaves were substituted for plates and participants enjoyed delicious ginger-chicken and vegetarian wraps, fresh local fruit, taro chips and guava bars without the benefit of cutlery. Drinking from reusable stainless-steel containers, and tidying up with cloth napkins, teachers marveled at how easily they had adjusted to the challenge.

At the end of the evening, as they left Twigg-Smith Pavilion with lesson plans, science experiments and other resources allowing them to immediately incorporate the topic into their classrooms, many educators made personal pledges to reduce the use of plastic in their own lives.

“What I loved is that I learned so much that I can take back to my school and do right away,” said Vendiola. “Teachers learn so much from each other. That’s the beauty of events like these.”


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