My 16-year-old son Foster had the honor of interning this summer for Parley For The Oceans in NYC and also attended their program called Ocean Uprise in Hawaii, “an immersive approach to environmental education with the goal of inspiring marine conservation and empowering its next generation of leaders” which they refer to as Ocean Guardians.

In the program there were approximately 30 youth from every continent between the ages of 13 to 18. His summer experience afforded him with increased knowledge about plastic pollution and the know-how to meaningfully advocate for environmental issues. I’m a big fan of experiential learning. When kids can use multi-modal forms of sensory learning, the experience tends to be retained and make the most impact.

According to National Geographic, each year about 8.8 million tons of plastic trash flows into the ocean. That waste endangers wildlife and gives rise to numerous health concerns. The urgency is apparent so much so that it was recently reported by the BBC News that the European Parliament has voted to ban by 2021 all single-use plastics in an attempt to stop the unending stream of plastic pollution making its way into the oceans.

Most plastic products are single use plastics that are then thrown away. They include things like straws, plates, cups and cotton buds, and can take several centuries to degrade in the oceans where they are increasingly observed to be consumed by marine life. According to the European Commission, such plastics make up 70 percent of all marine litter.

Some good videos such as Kids Take Action Against Ocean Plastic and the TED Talk Kids Against Plastic explore this growing concern, its negative effects on humans and animals, and the dire need for ongoing advocacy.

Parley’s AIR strategy is to end the fast-growing threat of marine plastic pollution. They believe that “plastic is a design failure, one that can only be solved by reinventing the material itself. To create change, we can stop producing more plastic right away and use up-cycled marine plastic waste instead. Everyone has a role to play.” Their AIR strategy is based on Avoid plastic wherever possible, Intercept plastic waste, and Redesign the material itself.

Parley describes the problems our oceans face, they assert, “If we fail to clean up the plastic and stop the continued pollution of the oceans, we are facing the potential extinction of many sea life species and the interruption of the entire ecosystem. We also risk the health of anyone who eats seafood.”

The purpose of the Ocean Uprise program was to educate kids on the effects of plastic pollution and how to live sustainably. On a daily basis the participants used metal utensils and straws instead of plastic ones. Instead of electricity, they used solar powered lanterns. They also used sinks to wash their clothing and hung it out on a line to dry. They ate all vegetarian food and used bamboo toothbrushes instead of plastic ones.

Although my son admitted to being skeptical at first, thinking it would be too difficult to carry out, his sensitivity and awareness increased exponentially. He better understood what items get recycled, how making concerted efforts lead to meaningful impact, and how at school even though they were separating the garbage, at the end of the day, the recyclables and regular garbage were being disposed of together. He has a plan about how he will approach these issues and how to align with other students to carry out more sustainable living during his school day.

He recalled the most impactful action for him was cleaning beaches on the island of Oahu. As was explained, things got carried to the Hawaiian coastlines from varies bodies of water and washed up onto the shore. The kids retrieved toothbrushes, bottles, caps, micro-plastics, among other things. They learned that many animals die because of being caught in the plastic and/or their inability to digest the plastic mistaking it for food, and that it returns to us through our diet.

They heard firsthand from those individuals who impressively made huge impact such as Sea Shepherd CEO Captain Paul Watson, Nainoa Thompson, a native Hawaiian navigator and the president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Kai Lenny, a professional and highly recognized world champion surfer and water-sport enthusiast, among others. The sentiment was unanimous among the speakers, “If the ocean dies, we die.”

The program concluded with a group exercise where attendees came up with a solution that would continue after the Ocean Uprise program was over. My son’s group created an education program for kids Kindergarten thru 12th grade. Each group member will pitch it to their school. They will work to broaden the scope from the local level, to the state level, and onward. Those connections will be facilitated through Parley For The Oceans and its strategic partners – Adidas, Corona, American Express, and others. Foster’s major take-away was that you must be proactive. He expressed that “Beach cleanups are not good enough; we have to do more.”

A Relatively Painless Guide To Cutting Plastic Out Of Your Life provides a guide for plastic-free living in the kitchen, bathroom, nursery, and closet. In The Real Mom’s Guide to Reducing Plastic Pollution, there’s a guide provided relative to drinks, the lunch box, eating out, and the supermarket.

22 important tips for sustainable living include:

  1. Use cloth or paper grocery bags instead of plastic bags.
  2. Use a reusable produce bag. A single plastic bag can take 1,000 years to degrade.
  3. Seek out food packaged in glass or cardboard containers instead of plastic.
  4. Purchase food from bulk bins using cloth bags and store the food in non-plastic containers.
  5. When you must buy food in plastic packaging, remove it from the plastic packaging you bought it in and place it in a glass storage container in your home.
  6. Use glass or stainless-steel food storage containers for your home and when you travel or bring lunch to school or work.
  7. Pack your lunch in reusable containers and bags. Also, opt for fresh fruits and veggies and bulk items instead of products that come in single serving cups.
  8. Freeze foods in mason jars instead of zip locks.
  9. Use glass or stainless-steel water bottles and bring your own when plastic cups are going to be used.
  10. For a lightweight, portable cutlery option, use wooden/bamboo or metal flatware and utensils instead of plastic.
  11. Use stainless steel or paper straws instead of plastic ones.
  12. Use a reusable bottle or mug for your beverages, even when ordering from a to-go store like Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts.
  13. Purchase food, like cereal, pasta, and rice from bulk bins and fill a reusable bag or container.
  14. Bring your own container for take-out or your restaurant doggy-bag since many restaurants use Styrofoam.
  15. Ask your local grocer/farmer’s market to recycle your plastic containers (for berries, tomatoes, etc.) and ask them to refill it for you.
  16. Make fresh squeezed juice or eat fruit instead of buying juice in plastic bottles.
  17. Seek out personal care products that are described as “Phthalate free.”
  18. Avoid personal care products with microbeads (e.g., face wash, toothpaste with polyethylene or polypropylene are likely to contain microbeads), which are made of plastic.
  19. Clean your home with natural cleaners as many household cleaners use phthalates.
  20. Make your own cleaning products that will be less toxic (using vinegar is a great option) and eliminate the need for multiple plastic bottles of cleaner.
  21. Don’t buy plastic flip-flops or shoes.
  22. Seek out natural fibers for your clothing and bedding. Avoid polyesters, nylon, and acrylic, which are made from plastics.

Some suggest making plastic 100 percent recyclable, while other suggest that biodegradable plastics which are those that break down quickly after use and can’t pollute, may be our best bet. A multidisciplinary approach is necessary including consideration of engineering, political action, and public awareness. Parley For The Oceans is advocating for this type of approachand see the key to ending marine plastic pollution in collaboration and approaching it from different angles.

Having my son attend this program has taught him and our family much about this issue and how we can do our part. I see the subtle changes when he opts to drink without a straw, brings his metal utensils with him, and preemptively arranged to meet with administration at school to discuss recycling. Collaborating as a family for the sake of future generations is inspiring and hopeful for us all.