Eliminating Plastics in South Florida

Highlights and lessons from students working with businesses to eliminate plastics

This blog was co-written by Natalia De Prisco. Natalia is an 11th grade student in Doral, Florida, who participated in Plastic Free Cities during the Fall 2023 semester. She aspires to pursue a career in business, speaks four languages and is passionate about ways to prevent plastic from entering our ocean.

Plastic Free Cities is an Ocean Conservancy initiative in collaboration with partners in South Florida, Debris Free Oceans and Big Blue & You, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Now in its second year, Plastic Free Cities empowers high school students to work with local businesses to eliminate single-use plastics such as cups, plates and utensils, often replacing them with reusable or backyard compostable products. Once high school students participate in five interactive training sessions with Plastic Free Cities, they become Youth Sustainability Consultants and lead business visits, providing tailored recommendations to help reduce use of plastic products while also saving them money. Ultimately, students in the program aim to reduce the amount of plastic litter in their communities and prevent it from making its way to the ocean. Their efforts are particularly impactful in Miami-Dade County, where residents generate an average of eight pounds of waste per person per day, which is higher than the national average of five pounds per person per day, all while neighboring critical coral reefs, sea turtle nesting sites and other essential ocean ecosystems are severely impacted by plastic pollution.

While the Plastic Free Cities program has been effective in educating businesses and highlighting opportunities for them to eliminate plastic, the passion and leadership of Plastic Free Cities students has been the most inspiring part of the program.

Natalia De Prisco, a Plastic Free Cities student from Doral, Florida, shared her experience with the program in the Fall of 2023:

“My experience in Plastic Free Cities has been phenomenal. I joined this program with the intention of learning more information and ways to heavily reduce plastic in my community, but I never expected it to be so great, interactive and fun. Everyone who was part of the program gave their energy, time and effort to work together and learn ways to stop these huge issues. When I first joined, I was very shy and wasn’t motivated to do public speaking. Although I was nervous, I still made the effort to learn and practice the skills. Now, I dominate public speaking because of my experiences in this program. Public speaking is such an important skill that can help show your confidence and dominance in your area of expertise and the chance to grow and reach the next level of your goals. When canvassing businesses, I used the ‘elevator pitch’ technique that I developed in the Plastic Free Cities trainings, which allowed me to talk with businesses about alternatives to single-use plastics to help them succeed even more in their businesses. While speaking with these businesses, I realized how much I have grown. I am now able to confidently go to businesses and discuss!

“As for my PFC peers, there has been tremendous growth. In my cohort in Doral, 80 students participated in training and 16 of these students attended canvassing, meaning they talked with businesses about single-plastic use alternatives. During canvassing, we visited 29 businesses, six businesses signed up for Plastic Free 305, and 13 other businesses were interested in making similar changes! By our Doral students and community taking a huge initiative to change the way plastic is used in businesses, a great amount of plastic was prevented from harming our community. As a current Plastic Free Cities Mentor, I am continuing to work with businesses and incoming Plastic Free Cities students at other schools. My experience in the program has been extraordinary and inspiring, and I wish to be part of and continue this amazing cause and help address this world problem.”

In its first year, 137 high school students from four inland schools across Miami-Dade County have participated in the program. These students visited 54 businesses to learn about their plastic usage, educate owners and managers about the impacts of single-use plastics, and recommend programs and products to help them eliminate plastics. Businesses that voluntarily eliminate plastic also had the option to join Plastic Free 305, the county’s recognition program that acknowledges and promotes plastic-free businesses. Plastic Free Cities students also hosted cleanups, sustainable markets and marine debris art workshops to bring together their communities, spread awareness of plastic pollution, and engage with media and journalists. So far, Plastic Free Cities students have prevented an estimated 581,000 single-use plastic items from being purchased annually.

Plastic Free Cities student group

Students who participated in Plastic Free Cities, including Natalia, will continue to work with businesses across Miami-Dade County through a Summer Mentorship Program. Summer Mentors will participate in the final canvassing push for the year, revisiting businesses that initially expressed interest in reducing plastic but needed more time and visiting a few new candidates for the Plastic Free 305 program. Upon conclusion of the Miami-Dade Plastic Free Cities program in the fall, Ocean Conservancy aims to build upon the success of the program by expanding the Plastic Free Cities model to new areas across the state, including economically and ecologically significant regions such as Orlando and Tampa. By fostering a new generation of ocean leaders and providing businesses with tangible resources for plastic reduction, we can turn the tide for Florida and create cleaner, healthier Plastic Free Cities.

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