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Students Statewide Join Together for New Jersey Clean Communities Council’s 11th-Annual Environmental Exchange

BRIGANTINE — There was plenty of time for serious discussion about discarded plastic bags on the beach, trash in urban waterways and ways to ensure school buildings recycle as much paper as possible.

And the annual Environmental Exchange included hands-on opportunities for 180 students from 11 schools across the state to participate in roundtable talks, create displays, learn about the dangers of plastic pollution and even meet a Brigantine-based duck named “Lucy.”

The prevailing message? We are borrowing the Earth from our children, and we need to take care of it.

The two-day event, concluding March 22, is run each year through the New Jersey Clean Communities Council (NJCCC), which works to ensure a strong cross-section of students from throughout the state participate in the program.

This year, there was the largest contingent of students in recent memory, said NJCCC Executive Director Sandy Huber, who secures new host communities each year and oversees every facet of the program.

On a rainy, breezy day, students were stationed at the Vacation Legacy Resorts Hotel, just steps from the sand and surf. Although the schedule was packed with information, there was also time for a dance party and photo booth, encouraging students from across the state to mingle. Attendees included children as young as third graders at the Brigantine Elementary School to high school ambassadors from the Atlantic County Institute of Technology (ACIT) in Mays Landing.

“We are convening a think tank of students committed to researching and solving environmental problems,” explained NJCCC Executive Director Sandy Huber. “We are encouraging students from diverse backgrounds to find common denominators in solving problems, and to promote an awareness of the natural environment and the cleanliness ethic. The goal is to produce meaningful research, evidence-based discussions, and viable environmental solution ideas among students across New Jersey.”

Rachel LaBBe-Bellas, science programs and development manager for 5Gyres Institute in Los Angeles, served as the keynote speaker.

“Plastic is an amazing material, but it has been transformed into a single-use material. It makes no sense,” she said. “Why use a plastic straw for one minute to sip your drink, and then it lasts in a landfill for 20 years?”

LaBBe-Bellas said there are many ways in which students can fight plastic pollution in their communities and keep it from entering local waterways.

“Kids can take action, from using reusable water bottles or urging their school leaders to keep Styrofoam shells out of the cafeterias,” she said. “Just changing to reusable cutlery, for example, is a smart step to reducing the use of plastics. They can look for package-free products in the supermarket, and work toward life with zero-waste packaging.”

Now is the time to act, LaBBe-Bellas said. Plastic production is expected to increase by 40 percent by 2030 on the planet. Meanwhile, recycling of waste has proven only 9 percent effective. “It is a broken system that can only be solved by reducing our reliance on single-source plastic,” she said.

The message resounded with Lauren Biondi, 17, an ACIT junior, who considers it frightening that plastic waste can be dropped in New Jersey, get into a waterway and travel to another continent.

“Plastic pollution is a global issue, but it needs to be learned locally,” Biondi said. “This is where we can take action and can make a real difference. I am happy to see that adults are recognizing this problem and are now taking corrective action so that this problem hopefully doesn’t become generational for many years to come.”

Her environmental sciences teacher, Melissa Hannan, agreed. She said ACIT has been involved with the NJCCC since 2009 and considers “grassroots environmentalism” an important part of the curriculum.

“We want our students to become environmental stewards,” she said. “We want them to take the lessons they are learning here today back to their own communities, to their families and friends, and discuss the dangers of littering. We want them to understand the critical importance of reduce, reuse, recycle.”

There were also lighter messages at the environmental exchange, catered to students in elementary and middle school students. A popular stop was a visit with a mallard duck named Lucy. The duck is owned by Megan Baldwin, a ninth grader at Holy Spirit High School in Absecon.

Baldwin was sharing information about her pet with students from Gordon Parks Academy in East Orange and Brigantine Elementary School. Baldwin was pointing out a special coat of oil on Lucy’s feather that help the duck float.

“Probably the most interesting thing about Lucy is that she is a boy,” Baldwin said, with a giggle. “When Lucy was little, it was really hard to tell. And I really like the name, Lucy.”

One of the duck watchers was Kayla Dehaven, 9, of Brigantine Elementary School. She was then eager to pose for a photo with a poster she made, under the direction of her art teacher, Teri Gragg.

“It is really important to keep the community clean and to realize how bad plastics are,” Dehaven said. “That’s what I plan to tell my friends when I go back to school.”

Participating schools included:

Atlantic City: Pennsylvania Avenue School

Caldwell: Essex County Schools of Technology - West Caldwell Tech Campus

Brigantine: Brigantine Elementary & Middle Schools

East Orange: Gordon Parks Academy

East Orange: Tyson Middle/High School

Mays Landing: Atlantic County Institute of Technology

Millville: Maurice River Township Elementary School

Monroe: Williamstown Middle School

Morristown: Unity Charter School

Newark: Essex County School of Technology

Newark: Maria l. Varisco-Rogers Charter School

North Plainfield: North Plainfield High School

Paterson: STEM at JFK Educational Complex in Paterson

The event was hosted by the NJCCC, the City of Brigantine, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Visit njclean.org to learn more.

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