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Community approach to reducing single-use plastic beverage bottles wins major EPA award

NOAA Marine Debris Project field image


High school students in the collaborative project, A Community Approach to Reducing Single-Use Plastic Beverage Bottles: (GMU 120505) funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, have been awarded the prestigious President’s Environmental Youth Award.

NOAA Marine Debris Project field image

The long term, sustainable goal of this two-year project is to reduce single-use plastic water bottle use behavior of students at two high schools in Prince William County, VA through increased awareness of and connectivity between bottle usage and inland and marine debris problems in the tidal freshwater Potomac River.

NOAA Marine Debris Project field image

This pilot project is a collaborative effort with George Mason University (GMU), Keep Prince William Beautiful (KPWB), Prince William County Public Works Watershed Division (PWC), Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District (PWSWCD), Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC), and Freedom and Patriot High Schools within the Prince William County Public Schools district (PWCS). 

Check out the videos in the GMU - Prince William County Marine Debris Project playlist that was created for teacher and student training.

Research shows that authentic experiences enhance marine debris connections, helping to bridge the gap in understanding how litter affects our environment. Our Community-Based Social Marketing (CBSM) (Mackenzie-Mohr, 2011) pilot project aims to raise awareness of and connect participants to debris ecological impacts, expand participation in clean-up efforts, and change disposable water bottle use behavior at two high schools. Our project targets 20 teachers and 35 PWCS high school student delegates, whose efforts will impact behavior of thousands of students at Freedom High School (Title I, 2159 students), located near Neabsco Creek, one of the county’s most trash-laden waterbodies, and Patriot High School, (2678 students) in the Broad Run watershed. 

Community partners; PI Cindy Smith, Co-PIs Scott Glaberman, T. Reid Nelson, and Kim de Mutsert; GMU students in the Fisheries Ecology Lab, Dr. Glaberman’s Environmental Toxicology class, and Dr. Smith’s lab all played/are still playing key roles in the project.

See the list of 2022 Winners:

(Description from 2020 PEYA winners page)

EPA Region 3:

By: Stephanie Ruiz Molina and Ashley Munoz-Trujillo
Award Category: Grade Level 6-12

In February 2021, a survey of two high schools in Woodbridge, Virginia, showed that an overwhelming number of students used three or more plastic beverage bottles a day, most of which were water bottles. When 12th graders Stephanie and Ashley saw those numbers, they were shocked; they realized that even if every student used just one water bottle a day at Freedom High School, more than 10,000 water bottles would be used in a single week.

Working with George Mason University and local county partners, Stephanie and Ashley participated in trainings to learn more about the impacts of plastics on aquatic ecosystems. They learned that plastic bottles do not completely decompose, but rather break down and leave behind harmful microplastics. They also realized that water bottle litter on their campus could drain directly into a local creek that ultimately flows into the Potomac River.

Stephanie and Ashley set out to encourage their peers to use more reusable bottles instead of plastic ones. The student body identified several barriers to why students did not use reusable water bottles and set-out to devise a strategy to address them. For example, they successfully petitioned their school to install water bottle stations for students who did not like the taste of water from the faucet. They also collected more than 300 student action pledges, partnering with local organizations to provide one donated reusable bottle to each student who pledged. To address a lack of understanding about the importance of reducing plastic waste among the student body, Stephanie and Ashley started a social media campaign to reach their peers. Stephanie also shared her voice as a student representative on the Prince William County Schools Superintendent’s Advisory Council on Sustainability.

Stephanie and Ashley not only raised awareness about the impacts of plastic pollution in their school, but they also addressed the barriers their peers had to using reusable bottles. Their environmental stewardship helped fellow students contribute to protecting inland and marine ecosystems.