MARQUETTE - What began as a geography class discussion of world pollution at Marquette Alternative High School grew into a green forum that drew the notice of city and county officials.
"One student said, 'we should write letters to government officials,'" said Andrew Crunkelton, social studies teacher.
MAHS students wrote letters to city and county commissioners, Marquette's mayor and grocery store owners, asking them to decrease the use of plastic to help reduce waste and pollution in Marquette county.
"One of the major things how plastic affects, is that any seabird has at least 40 pieces of plastic in its stomach at a time," said Mark Johnson, 17.
After the letters, the students invited government officials and others to a forum to discuss options on how to decrease the use of plastic in Marquette.
The forum, held Wednesday morning at Marquette Senior High School, was attended by Mayor Tom Tourville, Marquette County commissioner Bruce Heikkila, Marquette County Landfill Authority member Jorma Lankinen, Kristi Mills of Save the Wild U.P. and MAHS students.
In a presentation, Johnson explained the negative effects of plastic on the environment. He said each year an estimated 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide. In the U.S.,12 million barrels of oil are used to produce 100 billion plastic bags annually, Johnson said. Plastic is made from a poisonous compound - polyethylene - that does not biodegrade.
After the presentation, Tourville said he did not know that plastic and especially plastic bags could cause so many environmental problems.
"I didn't know this," he said. "People probably aren't aware of this."
Tourville said he is planning to discuss the city's green plastic garbage bags with the commission to see if there are better ways to go about getting rid of city trash.
"Who the hell would have thought back then of the side effects?" he said of the decision, made years ago, to use the green plastic bags.
Tourville suggested the students show their power point presentation at the next city commission meeting, while Heikkala invited them to come to the next county board meeting.
"Sometimes I think the youth is more interested in the environment," Heikkila said. "You have already made a big difference."
Heikkila asked the students to involve the manufacturers who produce plastic bags and the businesses that offer them.
Lankinen gave an example of what European countries do to minimize the use of plastic bags.
"When you're in Europe, you have to pay for a bag," he said. "It encourages the people in Europe to be more conservative. There are a lot of things that we as Americans can learn from Europe."
Lankinen also told the students how much waste Marquette produces. In 2006, he said, the landfill received more than 41,500 tons of garbage. In 2007 that number rose to 43,000 tons and in 2008 to date, already 44,000 tons of garbage have been dropped off. He said he has seen seagulls get into the plastic bags at the landfill.
Mills told the students about the environmental non-profit organization Save the Wild U.P. and encouraged the students to keep going.
"You, as the young people, have the ability to come up with solutions," she said. "It has to start with the individual, the responsibility of each one of us."
The students hope to attend the next commission meetings, and they plan to continue to promote canvas bags versus plastic.