8 Youths Making A Real Difference In The Fight For Our Planet

by Alison Lee
Originally Published: 
Youths Ryan Hickman, Anna Du, and Maanasa Mendu speaking
Seedstars/Pei Zhang/TheEllenShow/Youtube

A certain 16-year-old has been making waves in 2019, rallying children and adults all around the world to fight climate change. She was even named Time’s “Person of the Year.” As wonderful as it is that Greta Thunberg has brought the issues of climate change to the forefront of many, she is not the only young person who deserves a shout out, a pat on the back, a thank you handshake, and our support for their projects.

Here are eight youths who have been working quietly, pursuing their life passion of saving the environment.

Ryan Hickman, age 9, founder of Ryan’s Recycling Company

If you read Ryan Hickman’s biography without knowing his age, you would be impressed. When you hear that he is only nine and is the founder of Ryan’s Recycling Company, which works to keep cans, plastic bottles, and glass from polluting our environment, you would be rightly gobsmacked. Then you will hear that he started this life mission at the tender age of three, and you will feel unworthy and in awe.

He is most passionate about protecting ocean animals from harm caused by trash. Ryan’s Recycling Company has kept 107,000 pounds of pollution out of the ocean and landfills. He coordinates pick-ups of recyclables from homes and businesses throughout Orange County and, with his family’s help, delivers them to the local redemption center every few weeks. He has also created and sells company t-shirts, donating all proceeds — nearly $10,000 so far – to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, a non-profit that rescues and rehabilitates seals and sea lions.

Anna Du, age 11, Deep Plastics Initiative

Anna Du has done more in her 11 years than your average 40-year-old. Not only has Anna invented a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) that detects microplastics on the ocean floor, she has also created the Deep Plastics Initiative (DPI) campaign to educate others about preventing and cleaning up plastic pollution in the ocean. She has even written a children’s book, Microplastics and Me, and has raised more than $7,000 to distribute it for free to kids and libraries in high-need communities.

Anna began her work after continually picking up plastic bags and bottles along local beaches. She knew that microplastics pose an even bigger problem. A lover of both oceans and engineering, Anna set to work, developing a detection system that uses an infrared camera and AI (artificial intelligence) technology to illuminate microplastics on the ocean floor. Her work has even caught the attention of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s microplastics team.

Maanasa Mendu, age 16, The HARVEST Project

On a trip to visit family in India, Maanasa Mendu encountered daily electrical blackouts and became aware of the dangers of kerosene lamps, used by so many there. Inspired, she spent three years working on her invention, HARVEST, an inexpensive and globally applicable renewable energy device. Her most recent design is constructed primarily of recycled materials costing less than $5.00. It can power a 15-watt LED bulb after just three hours of “charging.” HARVEST consists of energy harvesting “leaves” that produce an electrical charge when bent by wind or precipitation, or when exposed to sunlight.

Maanasa was named America’s Top Young Scientist in 2016 as the winner of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, and has used a portion of her science competition earnings to help start the Maruthi Foundation in India, which provides scholarships and other educational opportunities. She is currently working to enhance HARVEST’s patent-pending design with the goal of making it available worldwide as a do-it-yourself kit.

Fionn Ferreira, age 18

Fionn Ferreira made waves when he won the grand prize at the 2019 Google Science Fair for creating a method to remove microplastics from the ocean. By using a magnetic liquid called ferrofluid which attracts microplastics from the water, he managed to remove 88% of microplastics from water samples. Feirerra applied the concept of “like attracting like” and decided to try ferrofluid (something used to control vibrations in speakers and seals off electronic devices from debris), which has similar properties to microplastics. Ferreira hopes to scale the technology to be able to implement at wastewater treatment facilities to prevent the microplastics from ever reaching waterways and the ocean.

Shelby O’Neil, age 18, founder of Jr Ocean Guardians

Shelby O’Neil founded Jr Ocean Guardians, a non-profit that educates young children about plastic pollution and the ways they can protect our oceans and planet. She created the #NoStrawNovember movement, requesting and receiving a statewide No-Straw November Resolution from the California Coastal Commission. Her No-Straw November movement has garnered more than 10,000 straw-free pledges on her social media sites from people in over 20 countries. Shelby is currently working on straw-free legislation, teaming with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and testifying at the California State Capitol in support of a bill to eliminate plastic straws statewide. She also created an activity book for elementary students, including a Spanish edition, that she has distributed in classrooms to more than 1,000 children.

Saanya Bhargava, age 18, founder and president of impact.gravitas

Saanya Bhargava is the founder and president of impact.gravitas, a youth organization focused on increasing awareness and developing collaborative solutions to plastic pollution. Saanya also co founded: STEM Advocacy Conference of Texas, which pushes for gov­ernment funding of STEM education in under served communities. impact.gravitas has several projects ongoing projects which include Strawless Austin which encourages local restaurants to switch from single-use plastic straws to more bio-friendly alternatives.

Alex Weber and Jack Johnston, age 19, The Plastic Pick-Up

Friends Alex Weber and Jack Johnston were shocked when they discovered thousands of golf balls in the water when free diving in the Carmel Bay. Concerned, they learned that after a ball’s outer plastic layer breaks down, its rubber band core unravels into what looks like dried seagrass, which may be mistakenly eaten by birds and sea life. They started The Plastic Pick-Up a non-profit committed to keeping plastics pollution – especially golf balls – out of the ocean.

With their Fore the Ocean program, they have removed over 21,000 golf balls – equivalent in weight to 147,000 plastic grocery bags – from the sea floor below the Pebble Beach Golf Course. They are partnering with The Pebble Beach Company, The Monterey Bay Aquarium, and The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to implement monthly underwater golf ball clean-ups and weekly beach clean-ups. They are also working with a NOAA researcher to draft a scientific manuscript, with the hope of publishing their data. Their long-term goal is to create policy that will regulate and enforce the environmental impact of golf courses along our coasts and watersheds.

The climate emergency is real, and we are on the precipice of no-return. However, these eight youths and their peers are inspiring all of us to make a difference. Let us go out there, make a difference, and make our children proud.

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