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'If You Didn't, What Would the World Be?' Seacoast Kids Join Global Beach Clean-Up

Annie Ropeik
Little Harbour School second-grader Paul helps clean up Wallis Sands State Beach with his classmates and chaperones.

New Hampshire is doing its part this weekend for the Ocean Conservancy's annual, international coastal cleanup.

NHPR’s Annie Ropeik went out with one group of enthusiastic trash collectors at Wallis Sands State Beach Friday morning and has this story.

Wallis Sands is peaceful at first -- cool and quiet with thick morning fog rolling in from the ocean. Then the school bus pulls up.

Out pour 60 excited second-graders from Portsmouth's Little Harbour School, wearing colorful T-shirts they painted with fish just for this occasion. Wrangled by parents and teachers, they crowd around Blue Ocean Society volunteer Katie Pelon for instructions.

"The supplies you guys are gonna get are a bag to put the trash in," Pelon says. "Every time that you put a piece of trash in the bag, it needs to get marked on a data sheet that says what that piece of trash is."

The kids don purple latex gloves. They have about half an hour to pick up as much trash as they can find.

This clean-up marks the culmination of the second-graders' ocean awareness unit -- focused on marine life, and how littering and pollution can harm it.

Four boys and two of their moms poke around in the rocks that line one edge of the beach. Almost immediately, they hit the jackpot -- spotting a blue plastic shovel wedged into the jetty.

I ask two of the boys why it's important to throw the shovel away.

"Because it might go wash up in the water and an animal could eat it," says Max.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
Second-grader Max deposits some trash in his group's bag.

"And it might break in pieces and it'll be very sharp," adds Brandon.

They fan out and keep looking. And the more trash they pluck out of the sand and piles of seaweed, the more they seem to find -- Tupperware, a fishing lure, a sunscreen bottle, an e-cigarette cartridge.

Max picks up a Starburst wrapper and a straw. Then: "I found whatever this is," he says, producing a bit of plastic from the sand.

"It's a piece of trash, that's what it is," says his teammate Paul.

Blue Ocean Society volunteer Nancy Anderson says hands-on work like this may not eradicate all trash from a beach, but it will build these kids’ love for the environment.

She says many of them are already leading their parents on things like composting or skipping the straw.

"They’re young environmentalists," Anderson says. "What could be better, really?"

The kids are also helping collect data for the Ocean Conservancy. Within half an hour, on this pretty small beach, they've bagged 23 pounds of trash.

Last year, across Seacoast beaches, volunteers picked up well over 7,000 pounds of trash total -- including more than 33,000 cigarette butts.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
Seven-year-old Eli sifts through seaweed for bits of plastic at Wallis Sands.

Seven-year-old Eli shows me a long rope he found that he says a fish could have gotten tangled in. He’s also been picking up cigarette butts so animals don’t eat them and get sick or die.

"If you didn't, nobody would come [to the beach]," he says. "It’d be just a big trash field. Fish, animals would die. And then what would the world be? You wouldn’t be able to eat fish … and the earth would be poisoned."

Eli’s mom, Christina Dubin, says she wants him to be more environmentally conscious than past generations -- because he's growing up amid what she calls a tipping point of global, human-driven climate change.

She says that depresses her -- but her son could help fix it.

"He’s such a great reminder of what’s possible," Dubin says. "He’s like, 'Mom, look at the machines people are building -- this thing cleans the ocean, and there are people with great minds that are doing great things.' And I'm like OK, you're right. Yes. It could happen."

Dubin says her son may not understand the full picture. But she sees how kids his age care about their planet – and that gives her hope for the future.  

For details on public beach clean-ups taking place Saturday on the Seacoast, click here.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

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