ST. ALBANS – A trio of sixth graders from Team Voyager at St. Albans City School class have been gathering plastic grocery bags and exchanging them for reusable ones in an effort to reduce soft plastic pollution in the environment.

Since March, they’ve collected 300.

The project is part of the U.S. Army sponsored eCybermission program, which invites kids to apply Science, Technology, Engineering and Math methods to tackle real world problems. Looking at wetlands conservation, the students, Izaih Erno, 11, Corey McNulty, 12, and Natalie Cronin, 11, settled on a plan to encourage local residents to bring 10 plastic bags and get a free tote in return.

Erno, who makes it clear that he’s turning 12 in April, is the communicator of the group, and he’s good at it. He’s quick with statistics on the effects of “soft plastic” on wildlife, explaining how 100,000 marine creatures die from plastic endangerment each year, and that one million sea birds meet the same fate.

Erno said launching the program was an eye-opener. He and his two cohorts had to research the topic, design an incentive program, and advertise the project. To do that last part, they recorded a video commercial which aired during the morning announcements at the school, and also visited classrooms during parent visits to get the word out.

After dropping in on Jessica Bachand’s Team Imagination’s first graders, her classroom came through with 60 bags. Still, getting it going, said Erno, was not simple.

“There were definitely a bunch of highs and lows,” said Erno. “I didn’t really think that it was going to go as far as it did.”

Erno said they started out with a small amount of canvas tote bags, but it became clear they would run out of them, so they contacted Hannaford and Price Chopper to see if they could get donated reusable totes.

“They didn’t answer for a while and we were getting kinda scared,” he said. “It’s one thing if you don’t want to do it, but when they just don’t call back that’s another thing.”

City School sixth grader Izaih Erno explains the dangers of soft plastic bags to wildlife next to “Green Gary,” the mascot and bag receptacle he and fellow students Corey McNulty and Natalie Cronin designed as part of their plastic bag take back program. (Neil Zawicki, MESSENGER STAFF)

Ultimately, the grocery stores came through with the donated totes, and the team also purchased 50 reusable totes for $50 from Amazon.

“The totes are plastic too, but they’re reusable, so it makes a difference,” said Erno.

To make it fun for the younger kids to participate, Erno and his team wanted to come up with a mascot, so they took a small dome-topped trash can and made it up to look like a monster, letting kids deposit their donated bags into its mouth. Erno said he and McNulty designed and built the mascot while Cronin “was doing the computer stuff.”

“We named it Going Good Green Gary,” said Erno.  “But people just call it Green Gary.”

Green Gary sits at the ready outside their classroom, and he’s always open for business.

Once the bags are collected, their teacher, Tessa Bashaw takes them down to Price Chopper in bundles and drops them off at the bag recycling bin there.

“My husband’s just about done because I’ve taken about 20 of those,” joked Bashaw. “But that’s what I told them, I said ‘You’re making a difference.’”

Erno said he and his team plan to keep the program going for as long as people will keep bringing in their plastic bags. As for future plans, he indicates he’s caught the bug for such projects.

“It would be awesome to do something else like this,” he said.

Meet “Green Gary,” the mascot and bag receptacle. (Neil Zawicki, MESSENGER STAFF)

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