The Ripple Effect – From Metal Straws to Better Streams

By Maya Gurarie

Innovative ideas from local high school students will result in water bottle filling stations, less consumption of plastic straws, and other moves toward sustainability, thanks to a contest designed to improve watershed health.

On May 11, 10 teams of students gathered at the University of Northern Colorado to present their ideas at the Caring For Our Watersheds competition. They were the finalists among a group of 564 student competitors who participated by identifying an environmental issue in their home watershed—the Big Thompson or Cache la Poudre—and proposing realistic solutions. The 10 winners received cash prizes of $300 to $1,000, totaling $6,000, to implement their ideas. Another $6,000 was sent to those students’ classrooms for materials and supplies, plus an additional $5,640 for all classrooms that entered the contest. Prizes and the program are funded by Nutrien, a worldwide corporation that sells crop nutrients, inputs and services to growers.

“This program actually gives money to implement practical solutions. That ripple effect is making a difference, not only today but for generations to come,” says Caring for Our Watersheds Colorado coordinator Mike Switzer. While the implementation of projects has an impact on northern Colorado watersheds, students also feel the effects of taking action and putting their ideas to the test.

“Some projects are wildly successful and some need more reworking to gather information and make adjustments. The students are learning tremendously valuable skills to see what works with their ideas,” says Poudre Learning Center director Ray Tschillard, who helps support the program.

Greeley Central High School student Grace Patrick won first place in this year’s contest. She asked owners at three restaurants—Rio Grande Mexican, Palomino’s Mexican, and Roma Restaurant—to only distribute straws to customers upon request. Patrick collected 1,158 used straws to create pictures for the restaurant owners. These wall hangings are meant to raise awareness about the waste generated by the use of disposable plastic straws.

Since the competition Patrick has revisited those restaurants as a customer and happily reports that she hasn’t been handed a plastic straw. She continues to implement her project with a recent order of paper straws that she plans to distribute to participating restaurants. She even gave the judges their own metal straws during the competition, highlighting alternatives to the disposable option.

In the same spirit of local solutions, previous Caring for Our Watersheds winner Ivonne Morales has returned to the competition. In 2013, Morales launched a campaign to replace drinking fountains with water bottle filling stations in her high school. Her project not only reduces plastic waste, but has propelled Morales onto center stage as the next Colorado coordinator of the program. She will replace Mike Switzer who is retiring. This June Morales will meet with other Caring for Our Watersheds coordinators from across the United States, Canada and Argentina at the international headquarters of the program in Calgary, Canada to set goals for next year.

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