Sayeik Gastineau Elementary student Maddie Bass, dressed as a hammerhead shark, gives high-fives to other students after an assembly at the school on Thursday, May 2, 2019. The assembly was a year-end celebration for the Ocean Guardians program that promotes recycling and cutting down on plastic usage. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Sayeik Gastineau Elementary student Maddie Bass, dressed as a hammerhead shark, gives high-fives to other students after an assembly at the school on Thursday, May 2, 2019. The assembly was a year-end celebration for the Ocean Guardians program that promotes recycling and cutting down on plastic usage. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

Planet or plastic? Students do their part to protect oceans

Program taught importance of recycling, danger of plastics

A group of elementary students presented a choice for their peers on Thursday: planet or plastic?

This school year, students at Sayéik Gastineau Elementary School and Thunder Mountain High School were part of the Ocean Guardians Schools program, meaning they did projects and spread the word about ways to protect oceans. At Sayéik Gastineau, for example, the students switched from using sporks at lunch to using real cutlery, and saved more than 28,000 plastic sporks from going to the landfill.

On Thursday, the students spearheading the Ocean Guardians program presented to many of the other students at the school about what they’ve learned in the program and what their classmates can do to be more responsible. For example, one student pointed out, many shampoo bottles are recyclable and making sure those end up in the recycling instead of the trash can make a difference. They encouraged students to ask themselves, “Is this really trash?” before throwing something away, to think about whether it can be recycled.

[The last straw: Juneau group’s environmental mission starts with a beverage]

The students, who were all between third and fifth grade, wore outfits including a hammerhead shark suit, a dolphin suit and an orca hat. They performed a rendition of “Under the Sea” from “The Little Mermaid,” replacing the lyrics with their own.

“Up on the shore trash surrounds, it piles up in mounds. Trash pick-up day, we’ll save the waves, under the sea,” the end of the chorus proclaimed.

The program came to Juneau after National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Mammal Biologist Kim Raum-Suryan saw a video online about the program. She reached out to a few schools in Juneau, and the two that got back to her were Sayéik Gastineau and Thunder Mountain.

Ali Schuler, an Alaska sea grant state fellow for NOAA, took the reins of the program at Sayéik Gastineau. As many of the kids skipped lunch and recess to hold meetings, Schuler sat with them, answered their questions and helped them out.

At Thunder Mountain, biology teacher Kristen Wells headed up the program. The students raised about $1,500 this year, bought 24 recycling bins and are selling reusable watter bottles this fall to try and fund a hydration station (a device specifically designed to refill water bottles and encourage students to have reusable bottles) in the school, Schuler said.

The students were focused on reducing plastic use on their respective campuses, but ventured outside as well. Thunder Mountain students did a beach clean-up at Auke Rec recently, and Sayéik Gastineau students sent letters and met with local businesses to spread their message. Fifth grader Paige Kirsch was particularly fond of that aspect.

“One of my favorite parts was that we got to talk to businesses about helping to save the ocean,” Kirsch said, “so it’s not only us saving the oceans, but we’re helping other people save the oceans too.”

[Former Rep calls attention to ‘frightening’ state of oceans]

Raum-Suryan said members of the community were very helpful, including those who donated cutlery to replace the sporks. She said Dzantik’i Heeni and Floyd Dryden middle schools are applying to become Ocean Guardian schools for next school year.

As Thursday’s assembly went on and the students sang and danced, Sayéik Gastineau Principal Brenda Edwards stood in the back and clapped. She watched happily as the students encouraged younger students to get involved when they’re old enough (students have to be in third, fourth or fifth grade to participate), and said she hopes to see the program flourish.

“I would guess that the momentum will just keep on going,” Edwards said afterward. “Because it’s student-led, it just looks fun, and I think it’s appealing to all the kids.”

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

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