PORTLAND, Maine — Katie Strait was quite happy to have her students’ attention on a brisk Saturday morning in Portland's Back Bay.
"It’s Saturday morning and it’s freezing out, and they’re teenagers; they like to sleep!" she laughed. "It just shows that they do care."
30 of her Baxter Academy students, she reckoned, cared enough to put on winter coats, pick up trash with claw-like tools, and put them in buckets.
It was part service project, part science project.
Strait's life science class has been working on a research project to determine what types of waste are polluting Portland and the world's ecosystem.
As the rows of filled buckets grew over the course of the morning, the evidence suggested Strait's #1 enemy earned the largest share of blame: plastics.
Plastics are not biodegradable. Instead, over time, they break down into microplastics that can be tough for living organisms to deal with.
"Microplastics have been found in phytoplankton, which are the primary producers of the ocean and where we get 50% of our oxygen from," Strait said. "So, it’s a pervasive global threat."
As they plucked wrappers and refuse, Rosie Dibiace and her classmates worked to mark exactly what they were grabbing and from where, using an app from National Geographic that tags the location and type of trash picked up.
"Doing this research project, I’ve just noticed just how much plastic there is around us," she told us.
This trip could make them better science students. Dibiace believed it could make her a better Mainer.
"I just know in the future I’ll be more mindful and, like, talk to my family about it and my friends, and just tell them what I found, personally, and how they can help," she said.
Portland implemented a plastic bag fee system in July, banning certain types and charging five cents for others. While it may be a nuisance for some, Strait believed it has contributed to a steep decline in plastic bag waste on the ground in the city.
Katie Strait says she and the students collected 254 lbs of trash in two hours on Saturday.