When seven Richmond County high school students began researching what was circulating in the world’s oceans, they didn’t just get mad.
They got creative.
For 15 months they pored over reports and figures and learned that 46,000 pieces of plastic litter float on every square mile of ocean. They cringed at the fact that plastic particles outnumber plankton 60 to 1.
And when the students, in gifted programs at three different schools, discovered the Clean Air Council estimate that less than 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled each year, they came up with a plan.
In an effort to take as many bags out of circulation as possible, the seven students collected more than 6,000 from across the Augusta area to weave together into 15 sleeping mats to donate to the homeless. The project earned them first place in the Georgia Future Problem Solving Program’s Community Problem Solving competition this month and will advance them to the international phase in June.
“A lot of people don’t grasp the severity of it,” Amanda Dojack, a senior at Westside High School, said about the pollution. “If you just type in Google ‘plastic bags,’ it’s just horrifying. To know we are making a difference feels really good.”
To make the mats, Dojack said they cut each bag in half, knotted the pieces together, crocheted those scraps into a chain stitch and wove them on a homemade loom.
Each mat takes about four hours to make and is composed of more than 450 plastic bags.
The result is a waterproof, heat retaining bed that is surprisingly cushiony. Tyler Milks, also a senior from Westside, said it was important for the project not only to propose a solution for plastic bag waste but to also help improve the lives of the needy.
“I’m downtown a lot and see homeless people there, always asking ‘Do you have change? I need a bed to sleep in tonight and the Salvation Army charges $7 to stay,’ ” Milks said. “If they can’t afford a place to stay for the night, this could help them.”
In their quest to collect bags, the students – also from Glenn Hills High and Richmond County Technical Career Magnet schools – educated their peers on the grisly statistics they uncovered.
Classes at school heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vortex of trash, chemical sludge and plastic the size of Texas floating in the ocean. The students stood outside of grocery stores and informed customers about how the plastic bags they return to the store to be recycled are more than likely ending up in a landfill.
They also approached grocery store managers and asked if they’d be willing to donate used bags to their project.
Richmond County high school gifted teacher Ann Beth Strelec said beyond the Georgia Future Problem Solving competition, her students’ project is helping educate the public about an environmental crisis many may not know exists.
“Gifted kids are very sensitive to things like that because they’re big global thinkers,” Strelec said. “The more research we did about plastic in the ocean and people not taking it seriously, it just made them mad. We’re all just mindlessly taking our bags back to the grocery store thinking we’re doing our part and not realizing they’re not being taken care of.”
The Future Problem Solving Program International was founded in 1974 and challenges students to think creatively and develop future solutions in a competitive format. The program has three categories, each with a six-step problem solving process.
For the state phase, the students had to submit a six-page, 1,500 word report that chronicled their research and the logic behind the sleeping mats.
In June, the seven Richmond County students will present their project to the International panel at the competition held in Iowa.
Dojack said the group is hoping their project lives on after they have moved away to college.
“A lot of people can’t wrap their mind around this issue,” she said. “Hopefully we can keep this going.”