Inspired by the research and initiative of two students, Hillsdale High School has replaced plastic straws with paper straws.
At the end of the 2019 spring semester, science teacher Kraig Putnam required his students to research and devise a solution to an environmental issue impacting Michigan for their final biology project. He also encouraged them to implement their proposed solutions.
“I was hoping they would go above and beyond,” he said. “I gave them the freedom to cause change.”
Then freshmen, Maya Hall and Rhylie Dietz, wanted to find a topic for which they could provide a practical solution. They chose to investigate plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.
Hall and Dietz calculated the number of plastic particles per cubic kilometer in each Great Lake and distributed flyers of their findings throughout the school. During their presentation, they explained that, although the numbers may not seem large, fish, birds, and other wildlife die from consuming the plastic particles.
Based on their findings, the students decided eliminating plastic straw use was an effective way to reduce plastic pollution since plastic straws are easily substitutable.
The night before their presentation, they emailed Hillsdale High School Principal Amy Goldsmith to see whether the school might stop offering plastic straws.
“We didn’t have to put anything into action for the project,” said Dietz. “But we had to go above and beyond to get 100% on the project and it was worth 20% of our final, so we wanted to do well.”
Goldsmith praised them for their work and responded that she would help them eliminate plastic straws from Hillsdale High School by the beginning of the current fall semester.
“It’s important to appreciate students’ awareness, concern, interest, and willingness to contribute to sustainability initiatives,” she said.
As of August, Hillsdale High School no longer provides plastic straws in its cafeteria or student-run coffee house.
Although paper straws cost more than plastic, Hillsdale Community Schools Food Services Director Laura Donihue said she believes the switch to paper will be beneficial overall.
“My hope is that by offering paper straws, we are raising students’ awareness of waste and perhaps they will skip the straw altogether, resulting in a cost-neutral change.”
She added to the school’s sustainability efforts by introducing “Forkless Fridays,” during which the cafeteria offers finger foods for lunch to reduce waste from plasticware.
Now sophomores, Hall and Dietz said they have been excited to watch their proposal become reality.
“Our whole class was ecstatic,” Hall said of their biology classmates.
Putnam said he was amazed by his students’ enthusiasm.
“I think it was really cool to see how eager everyone was to make a change. It’s easy to talk about change, but not as many people actually do it — especially as freshmen.”
Both students plan to continue protecting the environment. Dietz hopes to study entomology and perhaps teach at the college level, while Hall said she is more interested in a career in writing but intends to remain involved in environmental activism.
Whatever they pursue in the future, Dietz and Hall are proud of their efforts thus far.
“It’s crazy to be in high school and actually making a change,” said Hall.