SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Did you know Americans use 1,000 plastic water bottles every second, and almost all will end up in landfills, even though they can be recycled?
Nina Chase, a rising fourth-grader at Wentworth Intermediate School, knows. And she’s doing something about it.
Chase, 9, wants her school to be free of plastic water bottles, and she hopes to form the school’s first formal environmental club.
Environmentalism permeates the recently completed new intermediate school, which has geothermal heating, solar panels, a garden and new drinking fountains with special spouts for filling reusable bottles.
“Everything’s starting new, so why not start fresh?” Chase asked.
Most of her peers seem to agree: as of the last day of school in late June, Chase had gathered more than 500 student signatures on a petition to ban bottled water in favor of tap water and reusable bottles.
Chase said she became interested in the environment a few years ago as she and her sister Mia watched “lots of nature shows” at their home off Spurwink Road. She said she also loves polar bears and is an avid swimmer.
On Monday, Chase said she wants to “do her part” to help protect the things she holds dear, so she decided to target her biggest pet peeve: plastic water bottles, which she believes are unnecessarily sold in vending machines at Wentworth, right next to water fountains with paper cups.
At the instruction of her teacher, Maire Trombley, she crafted a colorful tri-fold display outlining all the negative impacts she found plastic water bottles have on the environment: pollution from manufacturing and transportation, filling landfills and disrupting animal habitats. Plastic bottles also take at least 1,000 years to naturally decompose, Chase found in her research.
Equally important, Chase calls attention to the plentiful clean tap water available to most Americans, especially Mainers, and the fact that much bottled water actually comes from the tap.
“Tap water is cool!” her poster reads in bold letters, and she said it is several thousand dollars less expensive annually than drinking bottled water.
After presenting the research to her class, and meeting with a local representative from Food and Water Watch, Chase began raffling off reusable canteens to students.
As her movement picked up steam in the spring, Chase met with former Principal Anne-Mayre Dexter three times about the proposed ban and forming a new club, ending in a compromise that she begin her petition and present her research during school lunches.
Chase then lobbied Judy Campbell, the school nutrition director, to take bottles out of the school, but she was unsuccessful.
But Chase didn’t give up and continued sharing her ideas with students at lunch, which she said was “kind of nerve-wracking.”
Though she received lots of support from her classmates and superiors, by school year’s end, few had jumped into action.
“They weren’t doing anything about it,” she recalled, frustrated. “It was like they were saying, ‘Great idea, see you later.’”
But Chase is hopeful her new environmentally savvy school and new interim principal, former Assistant Principal Kelli Crosby, will be ready for an environmental club — which she wants to name POLAR kids, for Protect Our Land and Resources — and a possible plastic water bottle ban.
Campbell on Tuesday said the school makes a sizable profit from vending machines selling bottled water, and outside groups using school gymnasiums purchase the bottles too frequently for the school to stop carrying them.
However, Campbell admitted, the new school could bring about a new wave of environmental consciousness.
“I think [Chase's idea] is wonderful,” she said. “I don’t have any problem with it whatsoever.”
Chase’s mother, Molly Chase, has been by her daughter’s side and said she is continuously impressed by her once “very shy” child’s resilience in the face of bureaucratic red tape.
“To see her battling is amazing,” her mother said. “It tends to get very convoluted and political, and at 9 years old, it’s hard. It’s been a huge learning process. There are college campuses trying to do this.”
Nina Chase said the accomplishment she’s most proud of is “converting” one of her classmates to tap water.
“She really loved her plastic water bottles, she’d bring it everyday,” Chase said. “But for the last few days of school, she drank from her canteen.”
That classmate, Molly Chase said, is “going home and educating her parents.”
“That’s the idea,” Nina Chase added. “Just getting the word out.”