Pint-Sized Activists Sock it to Plastic Straws

 Pell Elementary School second-grade teacher Sybil Grayko and some of her former students who launched a campaign last year to eliminate plastic straws from the cafeteria. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Pell Elementary School second-grade teacher Sybil Grayko and some of her former students who launched a campaign last year to eliminate plastic straws from the cafeteria. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

By JOANNA DETZ/ecoRI News staff 

NEWPORT, R.I. — Second-grade teacher Sybil Grayko knew some of the images in the documentary would be difficult for her students to see, but she gently prepared them. And, last year, after she showed her class A Plastic Ocean, which details the scourge of ocean plastics and the impact on marine life, her students were inspired to take action.

Several kids from Grayko's class who are now in third grade — Malik, Grace, Luke, Miranda, Brooklyn, Adam, Landon and Peter — recently met with ecoRI News to talk about their successful campaign to ban plastic straws from the Pell Elementary School's cafeteria.

Eight-year-old Peter said he and his classmates learned from "A Plastic Ocean" that many animals were getting hurt by ocean plastics. "We wanted to prevent that. We were young, but we wanted to make a difference," he said.

The class, under the guidance of Grayko, channeled their will to act into a data-driven research project that resulted in the straw ban at their school.

The students decided to focus their attention on plastic straws after learning that single-use straws aren’t recyclable or biodegradable.

Before they approached the administration about banning straws, they conducted field research, counting the number of straws their peers used at lunchtime in the school’s cafeteria. They tallied 487 straws used on a typical day. It's estimated that Americans use 500 million straws a day.

The kids then began educating their fellow students about the problems associated with straws and single-use plastics, launching a “Skip the Straw” campaign. One month after they launched the campaign, they again counted the straws being used at lunchtime and noted a reduction in the number of straws their peers were using.

Grayko’s class then approached the school’s dining service company, Chartwells, about eliminating straws, noting that many students, as a result of their campaign, were already skipping the straw.

Finally, with the help of Grayko, the class drafted a letter last June titled, “How to Make Pell an Ocean Friendly School,” which detailed the problem of singe-use plastic and ended with this appeal: “We ask the administration to please consider banning straws and plastic utensils from Pell’s lunchroom starting this fall. We would like to remind you, that while we may be small people, we can make a BIG difference!”

Though they had originally set their aims on eliminating plastic utensils and straws, they learned that eliminating plastic utensils wasn't possible without the costly installation of a differently configured dishwashing system to accommodate silverware. It was a real-world lesson in the economics of environmentalism, but the students focused on their victory.

This past fall, the cafeteria stopped offering plastic straws.

Grayko, who has taught for 22 years, is passionate about sustainability. She has channeled that passion into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) learning that encourages students to solve real-world environmental problems.

This school year, she is continuing to work with her second-grade class on single-use plastics and is focused on beefing up in-school recycling. Of her students, she said, “They have a lot of power.”

Asked what message they would give to the adults in charge, Miranda, one of Grayko's former students who worked on the straw ban last year, said, “We were just second-graders, and they’re older, so they should be able to do it.”