4-H helps young people fight plastic pollution

November 1, 2021

With Partners Across the United States, Minnesota 4-H Launches Innovative Program to Make Youth Part of the Solution to Plastic Pollution

A young participant makes bioplastic.

Think about the power that the Great Lakes show us. Beams of light bouncing off the blue waters. The waves crash against the rocky shores.

What we don’t see is the vulnerability of the Great Lakes as 22 million tonnes of plastic enter their waters each year, threatening both their ecosystems and those far beyond their shores. Lakes are just one example. Plastic pollution threatens water, soil and animal life everywhere, from our backyards to the world’s oceans.

Better ways with plastics

A new 4-H program developed at the University of Minnesota Extension empowers young people to be part of the solution. Called Green Superheroes of Science, 4-H teens teach science concepts to school-aged kids.

Experimenting with gooey plastic, finding out how to reuse existing plastics, and developing plastics from biodegradable materials all combine for fun and learning.

“We help young people find out what they can do at home, how science creates plastics that don’t harm the environment, and how they can help communities,” explains Anne Stevenson, extension educator.

Stevenson contacted the Center for Sustainable Polymers (CSP) of the National Science Foundation at the University of Minnesota. It turned out that the CSP was looking for an awareness and education partner. CSP and Stevenson have established a national partnership with extension educators at Cornell University and the University of California at Davis, who developed the 4-H Sustainable Polymers curriculum for grades K-8.

“It was the start of a great partnership,” Stevenson observes. “4-H is perfect because we are in all 50 states. ”

4-H teen reading a picture book aloud.
Samantha Hamm reads a book to the young participants between two plastic science experiments.

Young people lead young people

Minnesota teens helped create the Green Superheroes program. Samantha Hamm, 13, from Anoka County, is gaining experience and new knowledge.

“I knew that some plastics are bad and harm the environment. What I didn’t know is that there are a lot of ways people try to make plastics with bioproducts, ”Samantha explains.

The 4-H model emphasizes learning from older youth and then teaching the younger ones, which Samantha particularly enjoys. “I was very excited to teach the kids and have them ask, ‘What can I do in my environment? “”

For Extension partners at the University of Minnesota, the 4-H program contributes to the long-term thinking needed to find solutions to problems of the scale of plastic pollution.

“We see our partnership with Extension and 4-H as an opportunity to reach the next generation of scientists,” says Laura Seifert, CEO of CSP. “These are big challenges and they won’t be easy to solve. “

Bryce K. Locke