Never underestimate what a group of determined Girl Scouts can do. In the tiny Pennsylvania town of Narberth — population 4,353 — GSEP Troop 7885 played a crucial role in passing an ordinance that curbs single-use plastics. The law places a 10-cent fee on plastic shopping bags and bans plastic straws, unless requested by a customer with disabilities, making Narberth the first town in the state to restrict these disposable plastics.
How did the girls shepherd this landmark legislation into law? Green Matters spoke with their troop leader Missy French to find out. By French's account, what started out as a typical Girl Scout "Journey" — the GSA term for the thematic guidebooks that help the girls choose projects and earn merit badges — snowballed into civic action after her second and third grade Brownies learned about ocean plastics. Here's how they won the unanimous support of the Narberth borough council:
GREEN MATTERS: How did your Girl Scout troop get interested in single-use plastics?
MISSY FRENCH: We did the [Girl Scout] Journey Wonders of Water and part of that Journey is to learn about the water tributaries in our area and how they eventually lead to the ocean. We happened to do ours at the Philadelphia Zoo and [part] of their program is learning about the waterways through the Poconos Mountains all the way into the Atlantic Ocean. We got into the conversation of what we see when we're out in the Poconos Mountains. Everyone in my group had visited the mountains some time in the past year, so one of the commonalities was the trash that we see in the water all the time. And it sort of spurred from there. Part of all of our Journeys is a Take Action project and the girls decided to start counting the single-use straws they could refuse.
GM: A lot of people think getting anyone, not just kids, into environmental issues is a tough sell. Why do you think the girls were so enthusiastic about the issue?
MF: Part of our Take Action was to go home and share, and I happen to have a very energetic group, so they all wanted to do their own research. So they did further research on single-use straws and single-use plastic bags and the animal component became very vivid for them. There's a lot of interesting videos online. They came across sea turtles and fish and the impact on sea life in general. And from that they learned not just that it's impacting the sea turtles and the fish, but that they were actually ingesting plastic. How that as humans, as we are eating fish, we're ingesting the plastic. For girls who are between seven and nine years old, they took in a lot of information and they shared it with each other in a very mature way I was not expecting.
GM: Can you take me through how the legislation made its way through the Narberth council? Around when was it introduced and how were the girls involved?
MF: We have a really nice small community here in Narberth and we had a First Friday event. I happened to be talking to one of my neighbors and she asked about [my daughter] Maddie and the Girl Scouts and what we were doing. I shared the single-use straw project and how we were counting the straws we were refusing, that the girls wanted to make posters at school and sort of make a change. And she was very curious and interested in what else they wanted to do.
Maddie happened to be with me at this event and actually got to speak to her, as well as two other girls from our troop, they got to speak to the neighbor who happened to be a newly elected member of borough council. She was inspired by the girls and what they were doing and she asked if she organized the meeting, would they be interested in talking and attending? So that's what we did. We attended meetings with a bunch of other civic leaders in the community. The girls got to speak and share the information with people. We had a few business owners as well as people on our local borough council who were not interested in passing this. They didn't think it would be supported by the community. They were swayed by the girls themselves.
GM: How did the girls react to the ordinance passing the council?
MF: They're really getting excited, and inspired to do a little bit more. And not just with this particular project. They want to see what else they can do and build momentum. They've been able to convince a business owner to started supplying and selling metal straws as well as hand-blown glass straws. We've taken our little bins of reusable shopping bags and we started with one and now we have three. We're currently going to be putting two more out this weekend. So they're getting used and the girls are getting excited, you know, they get excited when they see their bags out being used.
GM: Do you think this kind of local single-use plastic action is replicable in other communities?
MF: I do. I really do. I think especially when it comes from the children in our community because the environment is what we're leaving them. [They want] to care for it in a better way than many of us that grew up learning about it differently. I think the Girl Scout experience has been very valuable for this. It gives us a safe environment for the girls to learn and explore and express themselves. So we've been able to harness that energy in our meetings and let the girls share. We've had the experience of sharing it with a few other troops and we're hoping that they're going to get inspired and sort of take action themselves, but I really do think this is something that can happen in other communities.