Youth turning the tide on plastic pollution

Nora (centre) with her siblings (from left) Emma and Sara, volunteering for river cleaning during the recovery MCO last year. Photo: Nora Zain

Just because they’re young, it doesn’t mean that they can’t make an impact in their homes, neighbourhood, and the community. At least, that’s what these three teenage girls believe.

Dhanya Night, 14, Nora Zain, 15, and Nur Kylie Khalieshah, 16, may be still in secondary school, but they have been influencing their families, friends and even the community to reduce their plastic consumption, through a United Nations initiative known as the Plastic Tide Turners Challenge.

UN Environment works with the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and Junior Achievement (a youth NGO) across various countries to implement this challenge where thousands of youth are mobilised to participate in the fight against plastic pollution and marine litter.

Dhanya, Nora and Kylie, who met through Girl Guides activities, believe that it’s important to take action to solve the problem of plastic pollution and they believe action should start at home with every individual, before going out into their community.

According to the Plastic Tide Turners Challenge, the production and consumption of single-use plastics and inability to manage plastic waste sustainably has led to a massive pollution problem. Because of this, marine litter and microplastics have flooded the oceans and are injuring marine ecosystems and human health.

“From reducing single-use plastic to recycling more effectively, to finding sustainable alternatives to plastic, the solutions to plastic pollution are within our grasp, ” says Dhanya, who goes to Acton Academy Kuala Lumpur.

In the leadership challenge, the girls learn what the solutions are and how they can be part of them. They also get to plan and activate their plans to inspire others to join in the fight against plastic pollution.

The three girls first heard about the challenge last October when they tuned in to the African Youth Summit on Facebook Live. The webinar included general facts about plastic pollution and snippets of what Guides and Scouts in Africa have done to combat plastic pollution and other global issues.

Subsequently, the local Girl Guides Association organised a Zoom meet to explain how the challenge is structured and how upon completing it, they would earn the Plastic Tide Turners Challenge Badge.

Badge of honour

The Badge was created by the United Nations to inspire youth to reduce their own plastic consumption and make changes within their communities.

There are a range of tasks and challenges that youth can do within each part in order to earn points. For the first part, they need to earn 50 points, the second part 65 points, and the third part 80 points. Once they earn all the points, they make a pledge and either write an essay or make a video about what they’ve learnt to earn the Badge.

“It’s a great way to encourage youth today to be more conscious about their usage of plastic and also the importance of environment conservation, and it starts at home, ” says Kylie, who studies at SMK Seri Hartamas.

“The Plastic Tide Turners Badge teaches us not to use plastics so often because it often ends up in the oceans and harms aquatic animals. Plastic also takes a long time to decompose, ” adds Nora, also a student from SMK Seri Hartamas.

There are a wide range of activities that the girls can choose from in each category so each person’s journey may be a little bit different, the girls reveal.

But after completing the challenge, they will all have an understanding of how plastic threatens life in oceans and on land; what the global community is doing to handle the issue; learn how to reduce usage of single-use plastics in their daily life; inspire their friends, family, school and community to reduce, reuse and recycle single-use plastics; and create a lasting change in their community or region with regards to single-use plastics, marine litter and microplastics.

It all starts at home

Dhanya did a presentation to educate her family about plastic pollution. Photo: Dhanya NightDhanya did a presentation to educate her family about plastic pollution. Photo: Dhanya Night

In Dhanya’s case, she started by educating and challenging her family to use less plastic.

“I researched and created a presentation for my extended family members to educate them about microplastics and their impacts on both humans and wildlife. I also audited my plastic habits for a month, ” she shares.

“At school, I supplied paper bags for use during MCO to deliver supplies for our science projects as usually, Ziploc bags are used. And, I also organised a talk with EcoKnights (an environmental NGO) and made a online exhibit for the Girl Guides community on ‘Surprising Items that Contain Plastic’, ” she adds.

In her community, Dhanya wrote to her apartment management, two Members of Parliament, and Alam Flora to offer suggestions on how they can help reduce plastic pollution. Lembah Pantai MP Fahmi Fadzil responded, asking to know more about the initiative.

“My biggest challenge was writing to community leaders with suggestions to reduce ill-disposal and littering of PPEs, ” she says.

Influencing your community

Kylie picking up plastic litter and other trash in the neighbourhood. Photo: Nur Kylie KhalieshahKylie picking up plastic litter and other trash in the neighbourhood. Photo: Nur Kylie KhalieshahKylie learnt about plastic pollution through a game, influenced her friends on social media to segregate their plastic waste for recycling, and encouraged her family to bring their own bags when shopping to reduce the need for plastic bags.

“There’s this game that we play to learn about plastic pollution called ‘Dumb Ways to Kill Oceans’ and I also made art using plastic bags and posted it on social media to inspire people to segregate their plastic waste for recycling. When my parents go to buy groceries, I always remind them to bring their own shopping bags, ” says Kylie.

In school, she tried to influence those around her to reduce plastic waste by creating a Zoom event for her friends and doing a quick survey on how to reduce plastic waste. She also spoke to her older brother about plastic pollution and encouraged him to start recycling, and went around her neighborhood on a cleaning spree and picked up any plastic litter that she found.

Eliminating single-use plastic

Nora also went around her neighbourhood to pick up plastic litter and other trash. Photo: Nora ZainNora also went around her neighbourhood to pick up plastic litter and other trash. Photo: Nora ZainNora decided to take a more drastic approach by eliminating at least five single-use plastic items from her life.

“I totally cut out straws, plastic bags, mineral water bottles and other such single-use plastic items from my daily life, ” she says.

In addition, she also held a docu-movie screening over Zoom to educate her friends about the devastating effects of plastic pollution.

“We watched two movies – the first one is an animated video about the extremity of plastic pollution globally and the second one is a shocking flick about what the oceans will look like in the future if people don’t act soon and do something to curb plastic pollution, ” she adds.

To impact her neighbourhood and community, Nora made and put up a Plastic Pollution awareness poster, and made a presentation to spread awareness about plastic pollution to present her family and friends. She also walked around her neighbourhood to pick up plastic litter, and managed to “fill a whole garbage bag even though it was exhausting”. She also wrote a letter to the municipality regarding the issue (poor upkeep of the area near her residence), and also offered suggestions on improvement.

“Although I didn’t get a written response, the matter was discussed on the spot and attended to by cleaners after that, ” she says.

One of the most challenging parts of the challenge for her was to volunteer to help clean up a river.

“My siblings and I volunteered to clean a portion of the Sungai Klang river with the Friends of Sungai Klang River Three team, every few Sundays during the recovery MCO, ” she says.

Together with her friends, she also created an online digital exhibit comprising different items that most people don’t realise have plastic in them. The photoshop rendition highlighted everything from tea bags and chewing gum, to menstrual products and cigarette butts.

A changed lifestyle

Playing certain games teaches us about plastic pollution, says Kylie. Photo: Nur Kylie KhalieshahPlaying certain games teaches us about plastic pollution, says Kylie. Photo: Nur Kylie KhalieshahThe three girls recently received the Plastic Tide Turners Badge for completing the Challenge as part of their Girl Guides activities. But they say that getting the Badge is not the end, rather, it’s just the beginning.

“It’s the start of a new lifestyle that is more conscious about caring for the environment and world around us, starting with our own family, neighbourhood and school, ” says Dhanya.

“We hope to start a movement of action to reduce plastic waste where it matters most – upstream, close to the source, before it reaches the oceans, ” adds Nora.

“We’ve a beautiful planet to call our home, but we also mustn’t forget that we share this home with plants and animals, so we need to do our part to keep our oceans, forests, rivers, and roads clean and plastic free, ” says Kylie.

The girls reveal that their Plastic Tide Turners Challenge activities have helped them personally to change their lives for the better.

“This has shown me that with enough passion and determination anyone can create change in the community, regardless of their age. Even though at times, I’ve felt overwhelmed and afraid that I wouldn’t be able to complete all the challenges, I developed the mindset of ‘doing something is better than doing nothing’, ” says Dhanya, adding that she has also learnt vital skills like communication, leadership, and delegation.

According to Kylie, it has helped make her more conscious in reducing the use of single-use plastics in her daily life.

“I now consciously recycle, and always bring my metal straw with me everywhere I go so that I don’t need to use plastic straws, and I also bring my own shopping bag when I go out to eliminate the need for plastic bags, ” she says.

“The Badge has also helped me boost my confidence in public speaking and talking to people to spread awareness to stop using single-use plastics. It has helped me to be a more productive person, ” she adds.

Nora says: “I used an app downloaded on my phone to track my plastic usage and have been able to audit my overall plastic usage. At home, we also got a water dispenser so that we wouldn’t need to purchase bottled mineral water.”

She adds that getting the Badge was a lot of work, and she learnt a lot, “especially what it feels like to really help and participate in a community”.

“There’s a sort of high that you get from knowing that what you’re doing counts and helps others, ” she says.

The pandemic’s effects

Taking part in EcoKnights activities on Zoom. Photo: Dhanya NightTaking part in EcoKnights activities on Zoom. Photo: Dhanya Night

Despite some of the activities being impacted by the movement control order, the girls feel that there were some advantages in doing the challenge during the pandemic, and it also made them think out-of-the-box to find creative solutions to complete the challenge within the restrictions of the pandemic.

“The challenges were designed before the pandemic so we had to make some adjustments to fit the current circumstances. For example, instead of creating an exhibit of plastic pollutants at school, we made a virtual exhibit using Prezi (a virtual presentation software), ” says Dhanya.

“And of course, we weren’t able do some activities such as river and beach clean ups, ” she adds.

“Although we couldn’t meet up in person, there were many online meetings and thousands of virtual messages passed between participants to help one another through the challenge, ” says Nora.

“It’s much easier to lessen your plastic usage when having homeschool instead of going to school because this eliminates the need for hundreds of water bottles and tons of snack packaging that would have been used throughout the year, ” she adds.

Youth creating an impact

Kylie believes that youth can help make an impact in their community by “using social media effectively to educate people about plastic pollution and encouraging recycling, and also through organising gotong-royong clean-up activities in the neighbourhood.

“Where caring for the environment is concerned, the best thing that a person can do is to educate themselves and others. Not everyone may be able to go out to clean up rivers or share their stories on big media platforms, but everyone can educate themselves, ” says Nora.

“Joining a challenge (like the Plastic Tide Turners Challenge Badge) or an environmental NGO like EcoKnights or Malaysian Nature Society can help remind us and keep us accountable in making an impact, ” concludes Dhanya.

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