When hundreds of kids from across the world arrived at the inaugural Ocean Heroes Bootcamp in New Orleans on June 2, they were given a set of tools — a metal cup, a metal straw and lid, and reusable bamboo utensils.

It was a starter kit for eliminating single-use plastics, a goal that each of them had agreed to before attending.

“We gave them the tools that they need to act as heroes in their day-to-day lives,” said Emy Kane, digital strategist at Lonely Whale, an ocean conservation organization that helped organize the bootcamp along with 10 other environmental groups and nonprofits.

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The term “bootcamp” may conjure up images of soldiers hustling through mud pits with 40 pounds of gear on their backs. But this bootcamp was different. Instead of running through barbed wire, the young ocean heroes learned how to run their own environmental campaigns.

“The goal was to teach youth how to activate around the issue of plastic pollution and ocean debris, to teach them how to engage in campaigns that change policy, business, and people,” Leesa Carter, the executive director of the Captain Planet Foundation, told Global Citizen.

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“We want to shorten the amount of time between activation to action, so they can go back home and locally implement strategies and campaigns that reduce plastic pollution,” she added.  

In particular, the bootcamp was focused on getting rid of single-use plastic straws, Kane said.

“The plastic straw is a gateway plastic,” Kane said. “It’s something we all encounter, and unless we have a disability, we don’t really need it.”

“It’s something that becomes a baton for conservation,” she added.

In the US, more than 500 million single-use plastic straws are used every day, and the vast majority end up polluting ecosystems, including the world’s oceans, which are inundated with more than 8 million tons of plastic every year.

Read More: 7 Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Plastic Straws to Help Save the Oceans

The health of the world’s oceans was the other main focus of the bootcamp.

Plastic waste is causing harm to marine creatures ranging from turtles to coral, infiltrating the most remote waters in the world, and creating vast, floating patches as big as states.

The kids at the bootcamp were encouraged to first approach these issues on the local level.

“We all know that once you succeed in activating around an issue and find success, you’ll focus on other things that are affecting your communities,” Carter said.  

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Throughout the weekend-long event, the ocean heroes took part in a series of activities.

There were peer-led workshops, during which kids brainstormed ways to tackle plastic pollution. There were sessions on how to use social media effectively, craft an elevator pitch, build grassroots campaigns, and pressure companies to adopt alternatives to plastic.

The kids were guided by environmental visionaries, some of whom have been engaged in efforts to protect the planet for decades.

Carter’s Captain Planet Foundation, for example, has helped more than 1.2 million kids take part in environmental restoration projects since 1991.

Another leader at the bootcamp had less experience, but was no less inspiring, according to Kane. The actor Aidan Gallagher, known as Nicky on the Nickelodeon hit “Nicky, Ricky, Dicky, and Dawn,” recently became the youngest-ever United Nations Environment Goodwill Ambassador at 14, and he was there to show the other kids that it’s never too early to get involved.

At the end of the bootcamp, kids pitched ideas for local campaigns that focused on coral bleaching, encouraging businesses to give up single-use straws, and organizing beach clean-up days.

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The next step is to track the various campaigns and provide feedback over the rest of the year. And next year, when it's time for another bootcamp, the event will focus on some other facet of plastic pollution, according to Kane.

Carter pointed out that young people, alarmed by the prospect of more plastic in the oceans than fish, are already leading on this and other environmental issues.

A group of teens recently discovered how to recycle styrofoam, a Girl Scout named Shelby O’Neil spurred Alaska Airlines to announce a ban on various single-use plastics, and two friends founded an organization called Bye Bye Plastic Bags to clean up plastic waste on beaches and other environments.

And there are groups of kids around the world who are suing their governments for failing to protect the environment. In the US, one major lawsuit is on its way through federal courts, despite doubts that it would ever be heard.

“By the time [some of the ocean heroes] graduate from high school, the ocean will have one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish,” Carter said. “It’s terrifying.”

Read More: This Whale Died From 64 Pounds of Plastic in Its Stomach

“They recognize that the choices we’re making are making peril for their future,” she said, “and they’re not staying still about it.”

Global Citizen campaigns to end the production of single-use plastics and you can take action on this issue here.


Defend the Planet

Hundreds of Kids Attended the First-Ever Ocean Plastic Bootcamp

By Joe McCarthy