Fernie Mayor Ange Qualizza listens to students’ presentation on waste reduction. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press

Fernie students take waste solutions to City

Fernie Secondary Grade 9 class pitch drain filters, cigarette bins to address key pollutants

A forward-thinking group of high school students have shared their ideas for a cleaner town with the City of Fernie.

Earlier this month, the Grade 9 Outdoor Education Class from Fernie Secondary School presented their findings on single use plastics and cigarette recycling to Mayor Ange Qualizza and councillors Troy Nixon and Kyle Hamilton.

Led by Danielle Gibson, the students identified issues surrounding the two pollutants and presented solutions to help keep them out of local waterways.

The students found that cigarettes and single use plastics were rarely recycled. This theory was confirmed when they took part in a cleanup session in partnership with the Elk River Alliance and found 59 beverage containers at Maiden Lake alone.

“The day that we collected was astonishing,” said a student in a video presentation to Mayor and Council.

“This included 238 plastic bags, 146 bottles, 127 beer and pop cans, and 867 cigarette butts. In total, we collected 1923 pieces of waste in only a few hours. A huge amount of this garbage was found on the snow dumping grounds for the City, located by the Boat Launch.”

The students further explained in the video that the culvert in which the snow melts into leads directly into the Elk River with zero filtration. Students proposed the use of storm drain filters to prevent the flow of garbage into waterways.

“This should be a wake up call to the citizens of Fernie, to address this important environmental issue,” said a student.

“We would like to see filtration systems put in place in many locations, focusing on areas of high waste disposal such as the boat launch area.”

In addition, they found that smaller pieces of garbage, such as cigarettes, can be extremely harmful to animals that mistake the garbage for food.

“A solution to minimize the effects of cigarettes on the environment is to recycle them,” said a student.

They presented their findings on a company called TerraCycle, which offers proper disposal of cigarettes for free. Once cigarette waste is collected, it can be shipped to them via UPS.

For every pound of cigarettes recycled, TerraCycle will donate one dollar to the charity of choice.

The students proposed that TerraCycle bins be placed in popular smoking areas around Fernie, such as the boat launch. Each bin costs $100.

Mayor Qualizza fully supported this idea and said she has seen, at festivals such as Wapiti, that there are no proper places for smokers to dispose of their cigarettes.

The students also urged the City to set an example and invoke a City-wide ban on plastic bags, replacing them with cotton or canvas bags.

Mayor and Council thanked the students for their extensive research and congratulated them on their initiative. They asked the students if they found any storm drains with filters on them and the students said a few, but they were not effective against smaller pieces of trash.

Asked if they found the cigarette butts or the plastic bags more troubling, a student spoke up and said they are both troubling in their own way.

Although a plastic bag is larger than a cigarette, the chemicals found in cigarettes are extremely harmful. She added that a plastic bag will break down in water but only into smaller pieces.

“This is great information,” said Hamilton, who then raised a bigger question.

“How do you suggest we, as a society, as council, re-educate people? How do we change people’s behaviours? Because to me that seems to be the bigger problem.”

A student explained that spreading awareness, as well as having trash cans in the right spots, could have a positive impact. Another student suggested that through the sharing of their videos, which show the harm even one cigarette can cause, will help change people’s minds.

Mayor Qualizza reiterated this and spoke to the power of good research and visual storytelling. She further suggested that students print out a particular slide showcasing the harm of improper garbage disposal for council to add into their agenda and share via social media.

A student said it’s up to a local municipality to protect their local waterways from pollution and set examples for other towns to follow. Especially, she added, towns such as Fernie that are so close to and have such a large impact on a body of water like the Elk River.

Mayor and Council agreed, adding that in order to see unified action surrounding the ban of plastics, it will take a push at the provincial level.

The students created two videos regarding their research and work, and these can be watched online here and here.

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