A turtle lies on a beach, tangled in a plastic bag. The 5th and 6th grade students at Santa Barbara Charter School gaze intently at this image, projected on a screen. Next slide: a seagull swallowing a hunk of plastic – perhaps an old piece of milk carton, or a water bottle that didn’t make it to the recycling bin.
Kathi King, Community Environmental Council’s Education and Outreach Director, then flips through a series of juxtaposed common items – a Ziploc sandwich bag, a candy wrapper, a straw – and asks for other examples of plastic used in everyday life.
It is a presentation she has shared with over 20,000 students since the start of Rethink the Drink in 2010, and one that has even more urgency in 2016, when California voters will decide once and for all whether to fully ban single-use plastic bags through Senate Bill 270.
Looking around the room, students quickly realize they are surrounded by plastic: from shoelaces to desk chairs to the pens they are taking notes with. That’s when Kathi is able to make the bigger point: Some of these things will be used for a long time, but over 50% of plastic is single use, meaning that it will only serve its purpose once before ending up in a waste bin. And that’s a best case scenario, as her visuals show.
The impact of single-use plastic
The aim of Rethink the Drink is simple: to reduce and eventually eliminate single-use water bottles from Santa Barbara area schools by installing water refill stations, educating about plastic waste, and encouraging the habit of bringing along reusable water bottles.
“My goal is to help people see that, while recycling is still important, the best solution is to reduce by simply not buying or using single-use plastics in the first place,” states King. “This kind of behavior change is the only way to guarantee that these plastics will not pollute our environment.”
Through simple visuals, Kathi shares the mind-boggling level of natural resources used in plastic water bottle production alone. More than 17 million barrels of oil are used annually to transport bottled water to stores – enough to fuel 1.5 million vehicles for a year.
She also shows that fewer than 30% of the 30 million bottles used each day in the U.S. end up in blue recycling bins. While some of the other 70% goes to landfills, the majority wind up as clutter in storm drains, watersheds, and oceans, breaking down into microplastics and being eaten by marine life. A growing body of research gives her other examples to share. For instance, the work of 5 Gyres reports that plastic particles outnumber plankton six to one in North Pacific waters, and recent articles by The Washington Post show that 90% of seabirds have ingested some sort of plastic and that plastic in the oceans will outweigh fish pound for pound by 2050.
Creating a community solution
Since the beginning, Rethink the Drink has focused on a district by district expansion, allowing for continuity and maximum impact as students move from one school level to the next. This strategy also aligns with funder interests. After the initial Orfalea Foundation grant, others like the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, the UCSB Students Associated Coastal Fund, Vapur, and Union Bank stepped up to fund refill stations and environmental education in schools. Once refill stations were installed in every school in Goleta and Santa Barbara School Districts, efforts shifted to both Carpinteria and several cities in North County, where new stations are being added almost every month.
“The hope with any program that CEC begins is that it is embraced by the community as its own, and that it is simple enough to be replicated in other regions,” commented Kathi. “That’s when true change happens, and when you know you’ve created a sustainable solution.”
In 2015, Santa Barbara School District proved the sustainability of Rethink the Drink when it decided to adopt and continue efforts of the refill station program. The district is now dedicating funds to maintain current water stations and install additional refill units at larger school sites. Kathi is also beginning to see the program spread to other regions, with groups from around the country and as far away as New Zealand calling to learn about the Rethink the Drink model.
Small steps, big impacts
Like every CEC initiative, Rethink the Drink offers a regional solution to combat climate change. With 32 thousand students and staff currently being serviced by 61 refill stations, this program alone has prevented 5 million pounds of CO2 from going into the atmosphere by preventing over 2 million single-use plastic bottles from being used.
This count is measured by digital displays on each refill station. As Kathi winds up her presentation with students, she encourages them to take pride every time they make the counter increase by one, and to consciously look for other ways they and their family can avoid single-use plastics.
To see a complete list of water refill stations and learn more about the program, visit CECSB.org/ditch-plastic/rethink-the-drink.