Water is the most basic life sustaining need. There is no living thing that can survive without it. With worldwide supplies dwindling due to droughts and contamination, access to clean water is becoming one of the most pressing needs facing human beings across the globe.
Lack of confidence in the local water supplies has led to a vicious cycle of buying bottled water in single-use plastic containers, which leads to contamination of water supplies, soil, oceans and is killing sea life.
Kristina “Kitty” Edwards, who is known by some as the “Plastics Lady,” says that at one elementary school alone, where pupils are advised to bring two bottles of water a day to school generates 1,600 empty plastic bottles to be fed to the landfill every day.
Before the storms of 2017 there were 15,000 students in the territory’s public schools. That’s 30,000 empty single-use plastic bottles a day. Common sense dictates there are far more than that being used and tossed out daily.
Edwards, who is the education and outreach coordinator for V.I. Coastal Zone Management, and Howard Forbes Jr., Virgin Islands Marine Advisory Service coordinator, are conspiring to change that one school at a time.
The first part of the program focuses on education
On Nov. 18, the pair, along with Javon Stout, engagement specialist at VI-EPSCoR, saw the beginning of their vision take shape when 41 ninth-graders at Charlotte Amalie High School spent 90 minutes of class time for three days learning everything there is to know about drinking water.
Students used hand-held meters, one of the instruments provided to teachers to test a water sample’s pH – a measure of how acidic or basic the water is; drinking water is usually around the pH of 7 to 8, Forbes explained in an interview this week.
The high schoolers, also saw what polluted water looks and tests like.
Then, they learned how to design and build filters, Forbes said. The students had the opportunity to test their filters to determine which design was best able to clean water. Forbes emphasized that at that stage, the water was still not safe for drinking.
The next phase involved using a combination of large and small sized gravel and sand to construct their filters and show that how they layered the filters would affect the quality of the water. Each filter also received a small amount of activated charcoal, which helps remove impurities.
“We are using best practices from our Youth Ocean Explorers Summer Program to actively engage students in this three-day module geared for students in grades 3-12,” Stout said, adding that teachers will receive two resource kits to facilitate several of the activities with their students after the program is over.
According to Stout, students will also work closely with the project team to create public service announcements that will be aired on local radio stations to educate the community on practices they can adopt to conserve the water they use daily.
Ridding the territory of plastic starts one bottle at a time
Forbes explained that people are unsure of the safety of both cistern and potable water in the territory and therefore prefer to use bottled water, despite the plasticization of the planet and the resulting deadly consequences to sea and other life.
What he didn’t mention – and something that is not highly publicized – is that drinking water from plastic bottles no matter what the label may say is no guarantee the water is safe. A 2018 study found that 93 percent of bottled water carried micro plastics, according to a lengthy report on the website of The Intercept.
The other fact this is making some of the front pages is that prior to China cutting off the flow of plastic garbage from the United States for recycling, only about 9 percent of plastic is actually recycled. That figure is closer to 5 percent now.
It is clear from all the data the best way to stem the flow of plastic bottles to our mounting landfills, is to not use them at all.
The second part of the effort, dubbed “Refill Bottles, Not Dumpsters” hopes to address that by eventually fitting all the territory’s schools with refill stations. The youngsters will be given stainless steel bottles to use and reuse.
“Students need reliable drinking water but we must also recognize that bottled water also contributes significantly to the waste stream and these projects will work hand in hand to educate our youth about waste reduction and water quality,” Edwards said.
VIMAS and VI-EPSCoR received funding through the U.S. Geological Services’ Water Resources Research Institute program to implement a Water Quality Education Program in a few schools in the Virgin Islands. In total, the territory was awarded $27,000, some of which goes towards salaries but most to the project itself, according to Edwards.
It is a worthy effort in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where landfills are already overflowing, are under various consent decrees and in danger of closing or relocating. Until the wanton use of single-use plastic diminishes, the garbage will keep piling up and rolling into the sea where – along with being unsightly to tourists and everyone else – it will break down and continue the toxic cycle.
While education is ultimately the key, offering alternatives is also required. Edwards said the refill stations cost about $2,400 each. She has been awaiting a memorandum of understanding to be executed by the Education Department to get started with installation and bottle distribution in public schools, for which she has a $24,000 grant from Banco Popular to start.
By early spring or sooner, she expects to install the first refill station at All Saints Cathedral School on St. Thomas, also thanks to grants from American Institutes of Architects and Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
Meanwhile the education program is expected to expand to include other high schools and middle schools on St. Thomas and St. Croix in 2020. The new program is intended to educate Virgin Islands youth on the importance of water and the need to protect, filter and properly dispense it.
VIMAS is housed within the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies at the University of the Virgin Islands. VIMAS works with the Virgin Islands community to raise awareness about natural resources and foster environmental stewardship.
More information about the Water Quality Education Program can be obtained by contacting Forbes at 340-693-1672 or at [email protected]