Alpena 4-H Tech Changemakers: Turning the tide on single-use plastics

In northeastern Michigan, the fight against microplastics in the Great Lakes is being championed by the Alpena 4-H Tech Changemakers.

Alpena County 4-H Changemakers gather as a group.

In this era of beach clean-ups, plastic bag bans and plastic-eating bacteria, it seems like everyone is trying to answer the question: How do we “turn off the tap” on plastic pollution in our bodies of water? We’ve heard from legislators, scientists, environmentalists and surfers, but perhaps the greatest voice in the fight against single-use plastics, also called microplastics, is that of our youth.

In northeastern Michigan, the fight against microplastics in the Great Lakes is being championed by the Alpena 4-H Tech Changemakers. The 4-H Tech Changemakers, a Michigan 4-H program of MSU Extension, is turning the tide on single-use plastics in Michigan through conversation and education.

The 4-H Tech Changemakers project is made possible by a partnership between Microsoft and National 4-H Council through the Michigan 4-H Foundation. This partnership provided grants for local 4-H programs to empower youth to address community issues through technology. As a result, youth develop valuable leadership skills, make strong community connections and prepare themselves for a lifetime of making positive change.

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Alpena is just one of the 91 communities across 15 states with 4-H Tech Changemakers teams, all of whom are finding technological solutions to local challenges. In Alpena, youth decided to address a community issue that was very close to home: the protection of the Great Lakes.

Since their home is nestled on the shores of beautiful Lake Huron, the residents of Alpena have a special and direct connection with the Great Lakes. However, it turns out that not everyone is aware of the negative effect that their connections may have on the lakes themselves.

Through a series of educational presentations to community groups like the Alpena Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club and the Alpena Community College Association of Lifelong Learners, 4-H youth have started some important conversations. In the presentations, youth educate community members about the sources of microplastics, the harm they present to wildlife and human health, and solutions to the problem on individual, community and national levels.

The youth also engage in community service through cleaning up beaches and volunteering at community events to promote waste-reducing practices. In addition, the youth used their tech literacy to design a website dedicated to marine debris education with resources specific to the Great Lakes region.

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As a result of their hard work, there have been great changes in the approaches of the Alpena community. Businesses and organizations contact the 4-H Tech Changemakers, seeking their wisdom and guidance in reducing their organizational waste. Currently, the youth are partnering with a local theater to implement new recycling and compost bins, bulk candy counters, and a “bring your own container program” for popcorn and soda. The Friends of the Alpena Farmers Market have also been inspired by the youth to write a grant for reusable bags. Throughout the city, the 4-H Tech Changemakers are helping Alpena residents chart the course for a healthier Great Lakes region.

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