With summer winding down in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s back-to-school time for many students. As young people reconnect with classroom friends and teachers, students, parents, and guardians are also busy stocking up on new supplies and clothes for the school year ahead. Unfortunately, if you walk down the aisles of almost any store this time of year you’ll notice plastic binders, water bottles, pens, and other single-use plastics marketed as “back-to-school” supplies. Step inside the school, and you’ll find even more plastic: lunch trays, drink bottles, utensils and more. Plastic school supplies, foodware, and synthetic clothing shed microplastics and contain hazardous chemicals known to harm people, and children are especially vulnerable to their effects.
The good news: it’s possible to avoid a school year filled with toxic plastic—and we are going to show you how. During our webinar, we learned why reusable, refillable, non-plastic school supplies like stainless steel lunch boxes and food storage containers are better for student health, the planet, and school and family budgets—and how to incorporate them into the school year. We also discussed how schools can incorporate reusable, plastic-free items and practices into their operations. During the August 17, 2023 webinar, we were joined by Jessica Cambell, Lower School Program Director & Educator at Mount Madonna School; Debby Lee Cohen, Executive Director & Founder of Cafeteria Culture; and Heather Itzla, Founder of Wisdom Supply Co. The panel was moderated by Dr. Manasa Mantravadi, Pediatrician and Founder & CEO at Ahimsa.
Jessica Cambell has been teaching at Mount Madonna School for over 15 years. Each year, she works with her 5th grade students on an environmental project that is woven into the common core curriculum. The projects are student driven, and project- and place-based to allow the students to positively effect change upon the issue of their choosing. Through this project, Jessica works to lead students to academically research the topic at hand, engage with community partners, develop public speaking skills through community presentations, express creativity through the development of educational materials, and engage in civic action through petitioning their government representatives. She believes that students have a powerful voice when given the tools to make positive change in our world.
Debby Lee Cohen, Executive Director/Founder of Cafeteria Culture and Co-Director/Producer of “Microplastic Madness,” is a zero waste activist/educator and interdisciplinary artist. She has designed scenery, puppets, and animation for theater, parades, film and television, including HBO’s “Classical Baby” and “Saving My Tomorrow.” She led the Styrofoam Out of Schools campaign (2009) which resulted in the elimination of half a billion plastic styrofoam trays per year from landfills, incinerators, and student meals in NYC and now over 15 other cities. She taught design at Parsons The New School and visual arts to teens at risk, inmates, and seniors. Since 2010, she has designed and taught interdisciplinary zero waste education to thousands of public school students. Debby received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the NY State Association for Reduction, Reuse, and Recycling (2022) and a Proclamation from Manhattan Borough President (2018). She is a member of the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board.
Heather Itzla became a plastic pollution activist in 2010 after watching Captain Charles Moore’s Ted Talk “Seas of Plastic.” Struck by how much of her son’s back-to-school shopping list was disposable plastic, she convinced the school to let her purchase plastic-free supplies for all students. She stocked the classrooms with the supplies the students needed for the year, and families reimbursed her—most just thankful they didn’t have to shop themselves. Fellow plastic pollution activist, Nikki Kozlowski, who was looking for a way to shift from downstream efforts like beach cleanups to plastic pollution prevention, became her co-founder. Together they launched Wisdom Supply Co., named for the Wisdom the albatross, the world’s oldest wild bird, and a species visibly affected by plastic pollution. The two women set out to turn what had been Heather’s volunteer effort into a B Corp Certified business, stocking classrooms with zero-waste school supplies.
Dr. Manasa Mantravadi is a board-certified pediatrician who was driven by her dedication to children’s health to launch Ahimsa, the world’s first colorful stainless steel dishes for kids. Motivated by the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) findings on harmful chemicals in plastic affecting children’s well-being, Ahimsa has gained widespread recognition and featured in major media outlets, including Parents Magazine, The Today Show, Oprah Mag, and more.
Acknowledged within the medical community, Dr. Mantravadi received the esteemed “Physician Mentor of the Year” award at Indiana University School of Medicine in 2019. Additionally, she was named a Forbes Next 1000 Entrepreneur in 2021, with her inspiring story showcased on Good Morning America. Dr. Mantravadi serves on the Council for Environmental Health and Climate Change at the AAP, empowering parents with evidence-based information about endocrine-disrupting chemicals in plastic and consumer goods. With her exceptional medical expertise, entrepreneurial spirit, and advocacy efforts, Dr. Manasa Mantravadi continues to leave a lasting impact on children’s health and well-being.