The amount of litter around the community raised concerns for Stacey Jambura's Lowell Elementary School students.
But its potential impacts on the environment --- including the world's oceans --- is what spurred them to action.
Jambura's 13 third- through fifth-grade expanded learning program students chose to do an environmental awareness project focusing on litter, specifically plastic bags and beverage rings. Students made reusable grocery bags, collected the plastic rings for recycling and wrote and published a book on plastic bags.
The reusable bags and the book will be for sale at a community-wide awareness event being planned at their school Saturday. All proceeds will be donated to ocean clean-up and marine animal rescue organizations.
The students discovered that the plastic bags laying in the gutter or blowing across the street in Waterloo can have a devastating effect on marine life thousands of miles away.
"Plastic bags, they can get around easily, so they can end up in the Pacific Ocean," fifth-grader Jason Ennenga II said. It starts when the plastic bags and rings are blown, washed or thrown into storm sewers, streams and rivers. It's the start of a long journey to the ocean.
Once the garbage is floating in the ocean, "sea life can get entangled in it and eat it," Jason said. That can lead to the animals' death, injury or deformity. The problem is so big that the trash has collected in a giant whirlpool referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
"It's full of garbage," fifth-grader Cameron McDermott said. "Eighty percent of it is plastic. It ends up in the ocean because of the wind currents and ocean currents."
So the students decided to collect old T-shirts and make them into reusable grocery bags. With the help of the school's Partners in Education and other community organizations, they collected more than 600 T-shirts. Students cut off the sleeves and neckline, then stitch the bottom with a sewing machine to create bags with handles.
"The main reason (for making them) was to reduce the amount of plastic bags, so sea life doesn't get tangled," said Julian Sabljakovic, another fifth-grader.
Cameron noted "that the average American uses over 500 plastic bags a year."
Students also are using the printed word to get out their message. The four fifth-grade ELP students jointly wrote the book "The Day I Got Thrown Out: A Diary of a Plastic Bag" and all students in the program contributed drawings.
"We were going to take pictures, then we decided it would be a lot faster just to draw them," fifth-grader Zane Stocks said.
"He starts out at a grocery store and ends up in a person's home," Cameron said. The bag is thrown away and blows into a river before making its way down to the ocean. "He ends up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch."
The book is being published by BaHar Publishing in Waterloo. Funding to publish the book and purchase a sewing machine to make the bags came from Disney's Planet Challenge, a project-based learning environmental competition. A finalist will be chosen from each state, with the winners competing for four national awards that include thousands of dollars for the classroom, school and teacher. The grand prize award includes a trip to Walt Disney World.