By Hannah Testa
I was anxiously sitting in the waiting room adjacent to the senate floor in the GA State Capitol Building in Atlanta. I can hear the chitter chatter of senators and the hustle and bustle of lobbyists, government employees, and citizens in the hallway. It is very chaotic and busy at the State Capitol! My dad was luckily sitting next to me, trying to keep me calm, and one of my friends and mentors, John R. Seydel, the Director of Sustainability with the City of Atlanta, was also there to support me.
The day is Feb. 15, and it is also called Plastic Pollution Awareness Day in Georgia. I was able to work with Georgia State Senator Nan Orrock to declare the day as Plastic Pollution Awareness Day. This is the second consecutive year for this event, with the first declared last year with Senator Michael Williams, my local senator. This year's event brought some new challenges, because this year I worked with a Democratic senator in a Republican state, whereas last year I worked with Republican Senator Williams.
Waiting to address the state senators, I was more nervous than usual. I speak in public often, and have spoken to up to 1,000 people at a time, but I was extremely nervous this time. I had butterflies in my stomach and my heart seemed to be beating much faster than normal. My dad was trying to distract me and told me to make sure to adjust the microphone when I get on stage. I think he told me two or three times because he thought I wasn’t listening. Then I received two texts from my mom, who decided to go upstairs to watch me from the gallery, telling me to make sure to adjust the microphone. And seconds later, John R. Seydel walks over to me and tells me that I can adjust the microphone if needed. The humor in this made me feel a bit better.
I also felt better when I saw a friendly face. Senator Williams got up from his seat and came over to hug me. As I mentioned earlier, we partnered last year to establish the first ever Plastic Pollution Awareness Day. He was beaming from ear to ear like a proud papa.
As the Lieutenant Governor told us to come onto the stage behind the podium, I looked up in the gallery, and there was not one empty seat. I saw my mom smiling and brother waving, which comforted me.
I stood behind Senator Orrock, who read the resolution in front of all 56 state senators. She then introduced me and gave me the podium. I was so nervous that I honestly forgot to adjust the microphone!
I knew I had 2 or 3 minutes to knock the socks off each of the senators! I looked out into the audience and saw many of the senators talking among themselves. However, as I spoke from the heart, the room got quiet as the senators started to listen intently. I then thought to myself, as the words were flowing from my voice, "How many 15 year olds get to speak on the senate floor?"
During my speech, I tried to plant a seed that government, businesses, and citizens need to work together to solve our most daunting environmental challenges. I stated some alarming plastic pollution statistics and saw a few senators nodding and others that looked surprised. And I looked over at Senator Williams, who was still beaming.
As I ended my speech, I had a flashback to a year earlier when I wasn’t allowed to speak on the senate floor because the plastic industry’s primary lobbying organization tried to stop the event. They saw me as a big threat. However, we reached a compromise and the day turned out great, but I wasn’t able to speak on the senate floor last year.
I was aware that I was given a huge opportunity to address the senators and I wanted to end on a high note, so I confidently declared, "We cannot control the past but we can focus on the present to mold a better future for our children, our grandchildren, and beyond. Let's continue to work together to educate our citizens and find practical solutions for a better Georgia and a better planet."
I saw smiles from nearly everyone as each senator clapped. I saw my mom and brother also cheering from the gallery. I felt relieved and energized at the same time, then felt my heart fill with pride as I turned to my dad and saw a tear in his eye. Senator Nan looked really proud of me too, and handed the signed resolution over to me. We posed for photos and plenty of people, including the photographer, told me how amazing my speech was.
When we had a quiet moment, we posted pictures on social media and sent them to the PR team that was helping us. The PR team updated me that news of the event was picked up by several TV stations and was seen by hundreds of thousands of Georgians.
That thrilled me because after all, getting the word out about the harmful effects of plastic pollution to as many people as possible is what this day is all about. Hopefully those that hear my message will start to make a change in their daily lives. Hopefully we’ll start to alter our relationship with single-use plastics because we aren’t going to be able to recycle our way out of this problem. Hopefully we'll start to see a dramatic reduction in our plastic consumption, because plastic is not a material the earth can digest.
With fingers crossed, this event will lead to more awareness, education and events like this in other states. I also hope this event will lead to increased plastic pollution protections in Georgia and beyond.
After hearing my story, I hope it inspires you that anyone can make a difference at any age. While I may have led this event, this initiative wouldn’t have been possible without the support of an entire village of supporters. I’d be happy to be part of your "village" to stand up and make a difference.
As a result, if you’d like to spearhead your own Plastic Pollution Awareness Day in your state, I posted advice, tips, and the necessary steps on my website, www.hannah4change.org. You may run into challenges, but pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and keep moving forward!
Hannah Testa is a 15-year-old honors student from Cumming, GA, a PPC Youth Ambassador, and the founder of Hannah4Change.