Salisbury students ‘go green,’ targeting plastic straws and milfoil

SALISBURY — Most kids learn about good environmental stewardship through school books, documentaries and/or their parents.
Students at the Salisbury Community School have been doing their environmental learning where it matters most — outdoors, where they’ve been picking up litter in their community and pulling invasive weeds from nearby Lake Dunmore.
“The kids are really thinking about their impact and the small things they can do to make a change and make a difference,” said Lili Foster, a grades 3/4 teacher at Salisbury School who has helped lead the students’ environmental efforts. “I think it’s really empowering for students to know they can make a small change.”
It all started back in late January, when Salisbury students in grades 3 through 5 began taking an International Baccalaureate class exploring how human behavior affects the Earth. Students learned, among other things, that certain products can cause havoc in nature once they’re discarded. The children were particularly struck by the potentially harmful aspects of a simple drinking aid they’ve all used at one time or another: A plastic straw.
Since they aren’t easily recycled and aren’t biodegradable, plastic straws can linger in the waste stream and hurt animals, the students learned. They came upon a picture of a turtle with a straw lodged in its nose.
“I really like straws, so I was used to them,” said 3rd-grader Abby Andres. “It took a little while to get off of them, but now we have reusable straws, so that works.”
Andres and some of her classmates are now trying to convince other people and businesses to take a pass on straws. With the help of Addison Central School District Technology Specialist Tim O’Leary, they created a new website at tiny.cc/strawless that asks people to help create a straw-less world.
“Straws are killing lots of animals and hurting the environment,” the students reported through their website. “Plastic straws are light so they blow right off of dumps and trash cans and into the oceans and rivers. In addition, colorful straws look like food to animals. Every year, America uses 12 million pounds of straws. Imagine, in 20 years that would be 240 million pounds of plastic straws.”
The kids ordered 1,000 business cards with the website name and bearing the straw-less message. They’re passing them out to other families and at restaurants at which straws are provided with beverages.
Salisbury School’s halls are adorned with student-made posters urging kids and adults alike to think more carefully about the products they are using.
Changing minds and habits, one person at a time.
Foster and fellow Salisbury School educator Bethany Morrissey kept the momentum going last month when they and their students participated in Green Up Day. They collected roadside trash in their community, and were shocked at the sheer volume of items people had indiscriminately tossed.
“We found couches, sinks and a giant metal holding tank,” 5th-grader Luke Nuceder said of some of the larger finds.
Having witnessed the trash scene on land, the students turned their attention to water purity. So they checked on the status of Lake Dunmore, which they learned was teeming with Eurasian milfoil. Milfoil is a fast spreading, nuisance weed that can form dense mats in a body of water to the point of disrupting human recreation and fish feeding patterns.
Salisbury School officials reached out to the Lake Dunmore/Fern Lake Association (LDFLA) for more information about milfoil and ongoing efforts to clear the two lakes of the pesky weed. Students volunteered to help, as they had done with the straws and litter situations. Thus began operation “Blue Up the Lake,” as coined by 5th-grader Addison Metoyer.
Foster and Morrissey reached out to the LDFLA and got an OK for 45 Salisbury students and 20 adults to help out at a June 6 milfoil pulling session on Lake Dunmore.
Participants set sail that day on a variety of kayaks and pontoon boats. Those on the pontoon boats gathered milfoil plants from professional divers who had plucked them by the roots. The milfoil piles were transferred from the pontoon boats to a truck, which delivered them to a spot to dry out and die.
Those in kayaks followed along and picked up any scraps of the weed found floating on the surface. Even a quarter-inch scrap of milfoil can become rooted in the lakebed and mature into a new plant, the students learned.
“It was really important to pick up all the ‘frags,’” said 4th-grader Gavin Mitchell in describing the dispersal danger of the small milfoil pieces.
Mitchell was part of the kayak flotilla. He diligently scooped frags from the water. At one point he flipped his kayak. Rather than feel sorry for himself after the cold, impromptu bath he had taken, Mitchell searched around for the fragments he had dropped.
That’s dedication.
Salisbury students paddle in kayaks behind the pontoon boats and collect milfoil fragments while divers from Lake Dunmore/Fern Lake Association pull it out at its roots below.
Courtesy photo
When he had rowed to shore after “operation milfoil,” Mitchell learned he had been carrying an uninvited, creepy passenger: A lake snake that wriggled away from the back of his kayak seat when he’d pulled it onto the shore.
He just smiled in recalling the incident, though it might have been a different reaction had the sea serpent slithered across his feet while he was in the middle of the lake.
It wasn’t all work for Salisbury’s contingent of milfoil pullers. They also did some fishing and hiking. It was an experience they’ll remember for a long time.
“I think what we did make a difference in the lake,” said Nuceder, who enjoys fishing and boating. “It would really be disappointing if all (the recreational options) went to waste because milfoil took over the lake. I think the lake’s alive and what we did was very important to keep the lake healthy.”
A GROUP OF 45 Salisbury Community School 3rd-5th-graders helped pull milfoil from Lake Dunmore on June 6.
Courtesy photo
Mitchell enjoyed his time on the lake, and like Nuceder, feels he made an important contribution.
“If milfoil took over the whole lake, the fish would get caught in it,” Mitchell said. “If you went out on your boat, the propeller would get stuck.”
Andres also saw great value in what she was able to accomplish.
“I really want to help the lake, because I love going out with my friends and my dad to fish and go swimming,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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