A Community Approach to Reducing Single-Use Plastic Bottles

The long term, sustainable goal of this 2-year project was to change (reduce) single-use plastic water bottle use behavior of students at two high schools in Prince William County, VA through increased awareness of and connectivity between bottle usage and inland and marine debris problems in the tidal freshwater Potomac River.

Our Team

This pilot project was a collaborative effort with George Mason University (Mason), Keep Prince William Beautiful (KPWB), Prince William County Public Works Watershed Division (PWC), Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District (PWSWCD), Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC), and Freedom and Patriot High Schools within Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS).

Project Impacts

To achieve sustainable behavior change at the pilot high schools, our project team focused on three broad areas: Training high school teachers and student delegates, supporting students in development and implementation of their Community-Based Social Marketing campaign, including a targeted social media plan, and greatly expanding participation in community cleanups located throughout Prince William County, Virginia. For their efforts, students in the project were awarded the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Region 3 President’s Environmental youth Award (PEYA). Read more

Adopt-A-Spot & Clean- Ups

Students adopted spots around the high schools and participated in in multiple cleanups. They also attended local stream clean-ups on several weekends. Participants reported that actually seeing and touching the floating bottles and other debris was impactful. They had no idea just how much trash flowed through local waterways.

A community environmental calendar of events was developed for the KPWB website to more widely advertise stream clean-ups and sustainability projects for our communities at large.

Field & Lab Experiences:

Stream Sampling

To find out if anadromous fish like river herring were returning to streams to breed, students and teachers, lead by GMU grad students helped collect ichthyoplankton (fish eggs and fish larvae) samples downstream from high schools.

Lab Investigation

After GMU student Rachel Kilmartin modeled the technique, students analyzed samples collected downstream from their high school. They were looking for fish larvae and fish eggs. And they found them!

Schoolyard Mapping

Tim Hughes, Environmental Specialist, Prince William County, engaged students in tracking path of storm water on school grounds. High schoolers located all storm drains and examined maps showing were rain water running off school ground drain into, empties into local streams and rivers.

Bottle Giveaways & Pledges

Our Community-Based Social Marketing (CBSM)(Mackenzie-Mohr, 2011) pilot project aimed to raise awareness of and connect participants to marine debris ecological impacts, expand participation in cleanup efforts, and change disposable water bottle use behavior at two schools. This project supports theme 1 influencing individual behavior changes in the VA Marine Debris Reduction Plan (Register and McKay, 2016)

We assessed single-use beverage bottle usage at two high schools and barriers to using reusable bottles through a baseline plastic bottle usage survey. Results indicated that students used 8000 single use bottles daily or 20,000 per week per school. Our goal was to enhance motivation and invite high schoolers to use refillable bottles through education and pledges.

Student response was overwhelming prompting 800 reusable water bottles to be distributed at program launch and a subsequent 800 bottles distributed later, totaling 1600 water bottles provided by community partners that were given out to students. NOAA and Prince William County Schools Sustainability Office generously donated funds for the installation of bottle filling stations at the schools.

Classroom Activities

How to elicit a pledge

Elementary school family event

Social Media

To engage more students, student delegates created targeted messages on Tik Tok and SnapChat and created a segment for the morning minute announcements. Prince William County Schools shared video detailing daily disposable bottle use and from lab investigations on YouTube,  and PEREC-GMU shared the informational and instruction modules on YouTube and Facebook.

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Surveys & Data

Our baseline survey was completed by students in science classes at Patriot & Freedom High Schools. Results of the survey was presented by students and GMU at the Mid-Atlantic Marine Debris Summit, by KPWB, a teacher and students at the Virginia Association of Environmental Educators by GMU to Leadership Prince William and by three students to the Prince William County School Board, where students also handed out reusable bottles to the school board members.

Data; data; data

Teacher & Student Training

Teacher and student professional development consisted of workshops through GMU’s Potomac Science Center, schoolyard stormwater training and ichthyoplankton field training. We planned to host 10 teacher delegates and 20 student delegates at the Potomac Science Center for training, but due to COVID restrictions we created online training modules which can be viewed HERE

Video Gallery

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School Resources and Geographical Impact Area

Our project enlisted the support of 20 teachers and 35 PWCS high school student delegates whose efforts impacted the behavior of students at Freedom High School (Title I, 2159 students) located near Neabsco Creek- one of the County’s most trash-laden waterbodies, and Patriot High School (2678 students) in the Broad Run watershed.

For more information on related projects contact NOAA