Advocating for Change and Making Shift Happen

Students on Martha’s Vineyard took action against single-use plastic bottles – and won

Olivia Synoracki

Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs recently named a group of students from Martha’s Vineyard, who took action against the island’s plastic waste, as the winners of their Marine Debris Creative Advocacy Competition. Here, we take a look at what the students accomplished and see how advocacy work is essential to creating lasting solutions for New England’s – and the world’s – trash.

Growing concerns over the health and environmental impacts of single-use plastics have many of us questioning the very nature of everyday products like straws, grocery bags, and water and soda bottles. While these items may be convenient, they all have a lifespan of mere minutes before being tossed aside, making their way into a landfill, incinerator, or, more often than not, our environment.

About eight million metric tons of that plastic litter end up in our oceans each year. Although horrors such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch have garnered much attention, the truth is, plastic can be found in every single ocean – including our ­­beloved Atlantic.

For residents of Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, ocean plastic has become a massive concern. Plastic debris constantly washes up on its shores, posing long-term threats to the island’s fishing and tourism industries, as well as the health and environment of its residents and marine life.

Dismayed by this ever-present danger in their community, a group of the island’s middle schoolers decided to take action. Together, they introduced a bylaw to cut the Vineyard’s single-use plastics and drive long-term change. Their success offers lessons to us all that, with passion and persistence, we can each fight for a future that we believe in.

Team Plastic Free MV is Born

Twenty-seven years ago, Martha’s Vineyard hosted its first-ever beach cleanup. Volunteers from across the island came out to rid the Vineyard of the trash lining its shores – and they have continued the event annually ever since.

For the past several years, West Tisbury middle school teacher and environmental activist, Annemarie Ralph, has involved her students in the cleanup. Together, they’ve picked up what has become an all-too-familiar array of plastic bottles, straws, bags, and other litter polluting the Vineyard’s shores. Seeing the impact of plastic pollution first-hand, Ralph’s fifth and sixth graders began to question whether their cleanup attempts would make a difference long-term.

To the students’ surprise, no Vineyard town had taken action to combat the plastic crisis and protect their future. Frustrated with the lack of effort by the adults in their community, the group of 10- to 12-year-olds, with Ralph’s help, took action themselves. They formed Plastic Free MV and started with one goal: to ban plastic water and soda bottles island-wide.

Plastic Bottles – An Unnecessary Evil

The production, recycling, and improper disposal of plastic waste create toxic emissions, threatening our health and the environment. What’s more, chemicals found in plastic bottles leach into the beverages they contain and can lead to serious health problems like heart disease, cancer, birth defects, and impaired immunity, among other issues.

Compelled by these frightening facts, Plastic Free MV drafted a bylaw regulating plastic bottles. The bylaw banned all non-carbonated, unflavored water, as well as all soft drinks – defined as any beverage containing carbonated water and a sweetener – under 34 ounces. No other town in the country has enacted a plastic bottle ban that includes soda bottles, so their addition in the students’ ordinance was an ambitious step for a group of young, first-time advocates.

Advocacy in Motion

With the bylaw drafted, now the real work began: getting it passed by the Vineyard’s six towns. The young members of Plastic Free MV organized meetings with state representatives, island residents, and local business owners to educate them about the proposed ban. Unsurprisingly, not everyone was on board. Companies and store owners especially worried that the bylaw might negatively impact their businesses.

But the students were ready for such objections. They came to the meetings with a solution – for businesses to sell and distribute alternatives, such as glass bottles and aluminum cans. By talking with and working alongside community members to address their concerns, the students were able to rally business owners and residents alike to their side.

With the adults in their communities now on board, the students’ fervor to ban plastic quickly took hold of the Vineyard. Three of the island’s six towns, including West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah, united behind the students and introduced Plastic Free MV’s bylaw on their town meeting dockets.

On April 9, the first vote took place in West Tisbury. With over 300 people in attendance, Plastic Free MV’s ordinance passed with overwhelming support. Chilmark and Aquinnah followed suit shortly after, leaving the students – and the island – to witness history in the making. On May 1 of next year, the sale and distribution of all plastic water and soda bottles under 34 ounces will be officially banned in all three towns.

Nowhere to Go but Up

As exciting as these wins were, Plastic Free MV knew there was more work to be done. With the Vineyard’s summer months approaching, when the island’s population would swell six-fold, seasonal residents and tourists would need to learn about the forthcoming bottle bans. So, the students held a number of events educating the summer crowds on the harms of plastic waste, while also giving away reusable water bottles for visitors to use at one of the island’s various refill stations.

But their environmental legacy doesn’t end there. The students are already looking ahead to next year, with the goal of passing their bylaw in Tisbury, Edgartown, and Oak Bluffs – the island’s other three towns.

Plastic Free MV’s efforts to ban plastic waste from the island shows us that it’s not enough to sit aside and wait for change to happen – we need to be the change we want to see. Their advocacy work has been and will continue to be crucial to implementing long-term sustainable solutions to our waste. Yours is, too. We all have the power to create change.

Looking to reduce waste in your hometown? Take a page out of Plastic Free MV’s book on how to take action and advocate for what you believe in.

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