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Saving the World One Plastic Bottle at a Time

For more pictures, go to Your Permanent Record.

Sam 8 By Kim Underwood

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools

JUNE 7, 2019 – Vienna fifth-grader Samantha “Sam” Wooten likes marine animals. So she was dismayed to learn that humans’ “plastic pollution” leads to the death of an estimated 50,000 marine animals a year.

Fifth-grader Jamison Carter had no idea that Styrofoam could take a million years to decompose. It could take even longer. Really, no one knows how long.

After learning about “marine debris” and what can be done to reduce the problem, Sam and Jamison and the other students in Erin Goliszek’s science classes at Vienna Elementary have been making changes in their lives and working with their parents to make changes.

As part of their efforts to educate people not only those close to them but also people in the wider community, each student created a public service announcement (PSA). On the night of Thursday June 6, they invited families and members of the community to come see their PSA’s at Footnote, a café and event space in downtown Winston-Salem that shares a building with Bookmarks book store.

Foot 12 Footnote is owned by Foothills Brewing, a brewer of craft beers, and Goliszek’s husband, Dave Goliszek, works for Foothills as a regional sales manager.

Many parents were there, including Jamison’s parents Jason and Heather Carter. Jamison and his parents talked about how they have always worked to recycle and such but how, since Jamison has participated in the project, they have become even more mindful.

“We all have our own refillable bottles,” Jason Carter said.

They also use reusable grocery bags.

It was a good project, Jamison said. “It was fun. It was a good experience.”

Those coming to Footnote might see Jamison performing as a stand-up comedian one day.  He wants to become a comedian and imagines starting out by performing in coffee shops and such. He is a funny guy, Heather Carter said, so she knows he would be good at it.

Sam has grown up understanding the importance of recycling.

Ocean 9 “I have been making her recycle ever since she was a baby,” said her mother, Stephanie Messer, who teaches at the Career Center.

And she helped start the trash club at Vienna, Messer said.

Her father, Chuck Wooten, who has teaches at the Career Center, was there as well.

One of the facts that Sam picked up along the way was that Americans use enough plastic straws every day to circle the Earth 2½ times.

Sam’s goals include getting people to stop using plastic straws and getting them to start using reusable grocery bags.

Another way to help is to stop drinking water out of disposable plastic bottles and use a bottle that can be washed and reused.

Fifth-grader Avery Greer also really likes sea turtles. She, too, was dismayed to discover what a hazard plastic straws and other plastics can be for them. So she is doing her best to use less plastic in general and not use plastic straws at all.

Marine 13 Ffith-grader Laheri Foster was surprised to learn how long it takes for plastic water bottles to decompose – it could take 450 years. Nor did she know that Styrofoam may never decompose.

“I am using water bottles you can reuse,” Laheri said.

Fifth-grader Jireh Downey was surprised to learn how trash a long way from the ocean – even trash from here – can end up in the ocean.

“I recycle a lot now,” Jireh said.

Students also learned that recycling isn’t enough to solve the problem. For one, even when plastic is recycled, the material breaks down after several uses. Aluminum, on the other hand, can be recycled indefinitely. So switching to aluminum cans is one way to help.

When she learned that, fifth-grader Destiney Powell made the switch.

“I get a can of soda rather than a plastic bottle,” she said.

Five 11 When asked what she would like to do for a career, Destiney said, “I want to be a singer.”

Not long after that, she showed that she has what it takes to do that. After a technical glitch created a delay in presenting the PSA’s, Destiney filled some of the time by stepping up in front of a room full of people and singing.

Talking with Goliszek and students, answering multiple-choice questions presented before the PSA’s, and the PSA’s themselves, people picked up all sorts of facts by the end of the evening. For instance, only about 23 percent of plastic water bottles are recycled.

Students did a count of plaster water bottles that were tossed in the trash at Vienna one day – they found 164. That means, unless changes are made, 29,320 bottles would be discarded in a 180-day school year, and, by the time a student had gone from kindergarten through fifth grade, 177,120 bottles would have been tossed in the trash. That comes to 3,542 pounds.

Girl 11 Many items take longer to decompose than you might imagine. For instance, a plastic grocery bag could take 10 to 20 years. So one of today’s fifth-graders could be 30 years old by the time that happens, Goliszek said.

The students had worked hard on their PSA’s, Goliszek said. Some would work on them during recess or lunch. Some came to school early or stayed after school was over for the day.

The students went beyond creating PSA’s. They also went out to Muddy Creek for a clean-up and participated in a community clean-up day.

In the longer run, Goliszek also envisions such possibilities as having Vienna switch from using trays made out of polystyrene foam, which people often refer to as Styrofoam, in the cafeteria trays to made out of paper. At Speas Elementary, they have made that switch. Goliszek knows the people who organized the project there and is working with them.

Sing 19 The origins of the “marine debris” project lie in a program for teachers that Goliszek participated in last summer. She joined 32 teachers from 18 counties across the state at the Duke University Marine Lab near Beaufort – where two women working on their doctorates at N.C. State University – Jenna Hartley and Danielle Lawson – focused on the how students’ efforts can lead to positive changes.

Both women came from Raleigh for the event. Lawson has since completed her doctorate. In her dissertation, she looked at such topics as how young people between the ages of 9 and 15 or so are open in their understanding of complex subjects and can think critically about them. That makes them good candidates for helping to deal with such issues as the hazards of marine debris.

As part of the presentation, students had created an undersea mural with a roll of sea-blue construction paper. For the eyes of the fish, the students had glued plastic eyes to the caps from plastic bottles.

Goliszek’s daughter, Chloe, who is a junior at Reagan High, came early with her mother so they could attach the undersea mural to a wall. Chloe is an artistic and, later this month, will be participating in an arts intensive at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

The students had invited not only people in the Vienna community but also people in the wider community, including all the mayors in Forsyth County. Mayor Dawn Morgan of Kernersville came with her daughter, Sarah, who is a freshman at East Forsyth High. Sarah is a Bookmarks volunteer.

Mural 4 Goliszek is one of two fifth-grade math and science teachers at Vienna. The other is Jeni Sigmon. She was there, along with students in her class and their families. Sigmon was impressed by the work that Goliszek’s students had done.

“I think it’s amazing,” she said.

One of Sigmon’s students there was Palmer Francis. She had come with her second-grade brother, Hank, and their mother, Nikki Francis.

Palmer is a big reader. She estimates that she probably reads about two hours a day during the week and another 3½ hours each day on the weekends. So she took advantage of the time until the program started by reading a graphic novel called “Crush” which is set in a middle school. Hank is a big reader, too. He had just picked up a new book at the Bookmarks bookstore.

Foothills makes limited-edition brews. For the month of June, it created Nautica, and proceeds from the sale of Nautica will go to support ocean conservation projects.  

To read the story about the lunch tray project at Speas, go to Speas Elementary.

The students participating were:

Cristina Bernabe-Terrones

Kelsey Blakley

Kameron Bustos

Jamison Carter

Emma Church

Teagan Cornejo

Jirehmarie Downey

Laheri Foster

Myles Garrett

Avery Greer

Aiden Hall

Lily Hayes

Carson Hedrick

Sienna Hobgood

Peyton Huffman

Briana Hutchinson

Raihan Islam

Charlie Jones

Hansumm McCoy

Mariah Nashed

Amara Pack

Ava Parsons

Isabella Shipek

Joshua Simmons

Kaylee Sloan

Jasmine Subbiah

Mckenzie Weidl

Matthew Wilkerson

Samantha Wooten



Kim Underwood