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St. John’s Lane ES Students Explore Plastic Bag Pollution

April 4th, 2024

A female SJLES and her teacher examining plastic bags to sort.

If you’ve been to a store in Howard County in the last few years and needed a disposable plastic bag to hold your purchases, you may have noticed you were charged a fee. But have you ever wondered how much those fees add up to or how the County puts them to use?

Students in Holly Miles’ Gifted and Talented Instructional Seminar at St. John’s Lane Elementary School did.

The students’ interest in plastic bag pollution took root in September, when Miles visited fifth-grade classes to teach a talent development lesson on plastic bag laws and bans. In her lesson, Miles shared information about several countries that have implemented a ban on disposable bags, as well as the impact such bans have had on the environment. She also informed students about Howard County’s Disposable Bag Fee program, which requires stores to charge customers a 5-cent fee for each disposable plastic bag they request.

Several students made clear that they wanted to know more, so Miles decided to offer an instructional seminar on plastic bag pollution, with a specific focus on Howard County.

Almost immediately, Miles says, her students had questions. They wanted to know how often Howard County residents use single-use plastic bags, whether Howard County residents were aware of the Disposable Bag Fee program, how much money that program generates, and how the money generated was used.

A SJLES student sorting plastic bags.

With Miles’ help, the students designed a 16-question survey intended to help answer these questions. They sent it to the SJLES and greater community, and, in the span of 20 days, received nearly 650 responses.

“The kids were so excited to see the responses coming in,” Miles says. “They couldn’t believe how many people were taking the time to do the survey they had created.”

The students also were surprised by many of the survey results, which, among other things, revealed that:

A group of SJLES students and a teacher sorting plastic bags.

With Miles’ help, the students decided to set up a meeting with Zach Beaver, Howard County’s Disposable Bag Fee administrator; Brenna Pinos from the Howard County Department of Finance; and Elissa Reineck from the Howard County Office of Community Sustainability to discuss their findings.

“I felt nervous and I was surprised that [County officials] would want to learn about what we found out,” recalls one student. “I also felt very proud of myself for doing something amazing and meeting the important people of Howard County.”

Another student notes that meeting with County officials made her feel “really professional and brave,” while another notes her surprise at discovering that County officials “would take interest in work done by fifth-grade students.”

Sorted plastic attached to a whiteboard.

Students in the G/T seminar next plan to explore other areas’ efforts to decrease single-use plastic bag usage and to create a video to help educate County residents about the Disposable Bag Fee program. They also plan to facilitate SJLES’ participation in the NextTrex recycling challenge, which enables organizations that collect at least 1,000 pounds of recycled plastic film during a 12-month period to receive a composite Trex bench.

“It’s been amazing to see how passionate the students are about this work,” Miles says. “Throughout the entire seminar, they have tried to find ways to do more to help our environment and encourage others to do the same.”

Plastic bags sorted into clean and dirty boxes.