Plastic Free MV: ‘We are the next generation’

Young activists set an example for kids across the nation.

Members of Plastic Free MV tour the bottled water and soft drink aisle to see what items would be off the shelves. — Lucas Thors

Updated April 23

A group of young environmental activists known as Plastic Free MV is looking to inspire the next generation to take action against pollution, waste, and climate change.

Their goal on-Island is to ban the sale of single-use plastic water and soda bottles 34 ounces and under in all six towns — a bylaw that was recently passed at the West Tisbury and Chilmark annual town meetings.

The group was originally formed by fifth graders from the West Tisbury School who learned about environmental activism and pollution in their classes.

The kids have been receiving all sorts of media attention, from the local spotlight to the national one, in an article by the Boston Globe.

The father of one of the kids, Thomas Bena, created a video montage of the group preparing for town meeting and presenting their bylaw to the public. Bena said the video is a good representation of all the energy the kids have put into shifting the paradigm here on the Vineyard.

After receiving overwhelming support from Island businesses and from community members, the kids say they are confident they will take the Island by storm and motivate others to change the way they see plastic.

Fifth grader Quinlan Slavin of Plastic Free MV said he thinks the meeting went well, and was surprised that there were not more questions from the audience regarding the bylaw and its effectiveness.

Ahead of the Chilmark town meeting, Quinlan said the group is reaching out to businesses in Chilmark to answer their questions before the bylaw goes to town floor.

Regarding all the media coverage the group has been getting, Quinlan said, “It’s been kind of crazy; we are just doing this to make a change, but it’s cool to get the word out.”

Quinlan said that most people on-Island know throwaway plastic is not good for the environment or for the well-being of humanity, but some people don’t have the opportunity or the ability to change their daily habits.

“We all know plastic is bad, but people are happy when they talk to us because we have taken a step that people know about, but might not have the courage or ability to act on,” Quinlan said.

Although the group is young, Quinlan said it is necessary that kids get involved with environmental issues early on, because they will be the stewards of the earth once this generation is gone.

“People think it’s crazy that we are all kids, but some people think it’s better because we are the next generation, and will have that responsibility to protect the environment now, and in the future. Some people think we are inexperienced, but we know we are doing the right thing, and are really dedicated,” Quinlan said.

Another member of Plastic Free MV, fifth grader Tasman Strom, said that at first presenting at the West Tisbury town meeting was “nerve-wracking” because of the enormous turnout, but once he settled in, he said, it was a lot of fun. “After awhile it was fun and exciting to finally be putting this bylaw through and making it happen,” Tasman said.

The article pertaining to the bylaw passed unanimously, followed by folks cheering and applauding the kids for their success.

With the first town meeting being such a hit, Tasman said it was “a great first step” after the kids had worked long and hard to refine the bylaw and garner support for their initiative.

With Chilmark passing the article at their town meeting, the kids have only Aquinnah left to convince before the article is passed in all up-Island towns

“We have been trying really hard to get the word out about this. We hope to get other people involved, and spread the word about banning plastic,” Tasman said.

Emma Bena, another fifth grade environmentalist, said she was happy with the resounding support from West Tisbury regarding the bylaw, but said there is “still a lot to be done” before banning single-use plastic bottles becomes an Islandwide movement.

“I hope we are reaching people who might be interested in what we are doing, but this really is just the start. We are going to keep working, and hopefully the state will create a statewide ban,” Emma said.

One way Emma said the group is getting publicity while also benefiting their effort is by distributing refillable, BPA-free Plastic Free MV water bottles with a QR code on the back that, when scanned, leads to the “Tap Map” that shows where all the water bottle refill stations are on-Island. The Island Little League and MVRHS baseball teams will be sporting the bottles during their games.

“We want to encourage people to use refillable bottles and go to refill stations, because there are so many here,” Emma said.

Samantha Look of Vineyard Conservation Society is helping the kids along their journey. She said the group is an inspiration, not just to their peers but to adults as well.

“I have been so impressed by [Plastic Free]. It was incredible to see the amount of support the town (West Tisbury) showed toward this bylaw,” Look said. “Some people stood and voiced their questions and concerns, but everyone commented on the kids and their amazing efforts.”

In the near future, Look said, she hopes Massachusetts will adopt a statewide legislation banning the sale of single-use bottles.

West Tisbury School fifth grade teacher Annemarie Ralph has been at the head of the kids’ initiative, but she said they are fiercely independent, and have set powerful goals for the future. “Coming out of the (West Tisbury) town meeting, the kids didn’t want this to end. They wanted to keep researching and keep talking with community members,” Ralph said.

Ralph said she couldn’t be happier with how the first step of the long journey turned out. “I was pleasantly surprised no one said much against it; everyone in the audience was smiling and clapping after the kids spoke,” she said.

Ralph said the kids spoke eloquently about the dangers of plastic in the environment, and asked for the audience’s help in making this monumental change. “The kids had so much to say, but they were really humble about it all, and kept a great attitude the entire time,” she said.

Ralph said she hopes seasonal visitors who come to Martha’s Vineyard gain a better understanding of why plastic is harmful, and how they can make small changes in their daily lives that work toward a more sustainable earth, one bottle at a time. “I want people to take these values that the kids embody and bring them home to their own communities,” Ralph said.

Updated to include the results of Chilmark’s town meeting -Ed.