Student looks to use plastic waste to make soccer goal nets
ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. (AP) — On her first trip to Ghana, Alexis Jablonski, 17, a senior at St. Johnsbury Academy, saw a problem.
On her second trip, she had a fix.
As part of her senior Capstone project, Jablonski is turning plastic waste that litters Ghana into soccer nets for the Ayi Owen International School.
The school was founded by Bill Owen — cousin of St. Johnsbury Academy teacher Frank Bowen. That connection led to a number of Academy trips to Ghana.
It was on her first trek, in 2017, that Jablonski noticed the prevalence of plastic litter.
“You’re surrounded by such a harsh kind of environment, things are disorganized and there’s all this litter but the people are so warm and welcoming,” the Waterford resident said. “There’s this juxtaposition . . . We would kind of talk about the problem and say it’s too bad that this is happening.”
“There are these little square plastic water bags called sachets and it’s their equivalent to a water bottle, and those are the most prominent litter, I would say,” she said. “You’ll see the bags in the river, all over town, they’re just everywhere.”
Upon her return to the states, Jablonski found a YouTube video showing people converting the very same plastic bags in Ghana into soccer nets. Eventually she decided to try to replicate the idea at the Ayi Owen school.
“I was really compelled to come back,” Jablonski said.
She dedicated her Capstone project to the broader question of “better waste management systems in Ghana.” And she got the opportunity to return to the country in February. While there, she got to turn her idea into action.
Alexis said the trips have changed her life, “You’re learning so much about yourself, I have always been inclined to service.”
Jablonski found that recycling centers are all but non-existent in rural Ghana.
“In my research I found out it’s sort of a social issue, there isn’t really education around it as there should be, but also in the government, there isn’t really infrastructure,” she said. “The nearest recycling center is eight hours away, “so it’s really complicated.”
The school is located in Techiman, Ghana and the landfill there is overflowing, said Alexis.
Since it costs money to have garbage removed, people instead often pile trash and burn it. Gutters in the ground end up filled with trash, running through communities.
The waste ends up in the rivers, she said.
When she was researching what she could do about the plastic problem in Ghana, at first Alexis had thought about doing a fund-raiser to provide water bottles for the students, “but that doesn’t really solve anything, you’re giving them an alternative, but there’s still going to be the bags and the litter.”
She said the youtube video she found of kids making soccer nets from the plastic waste was her a-hah moment and she decided to do the same thing at the school on her recent trip as part of her Capstone, “the wheels were turning!” She asked Bill Owen, one of the school’s founders, to have teachers start saving the bags for the project.
Alexis wanted to show the kids why the project was important, and she took groups of students — the sixth graders she worked with — and had them collect more of the plastic sachets. She incentivized the collection by awarding snacks as prizes, essentially bringing Vermont’s Green Up to Ghana.
“The kids really loved it, and I had a bag full of snacks. It went over so well, you could implement this system everywhere and kids would do it, no problem!” said Alexis.
Groups of students washed bags, cut bags and helped to weave the bags, “We had this kind of assembly line thing going on.”
She said it took a few days to process all the bags, “and then finally I showed the kids the video of the other school so they could see what we actually were working toward, we got some nylon rope and we took it and measured it along the post and then we tied it along two trees and we put knots where each top would be, so we could go down.”
It took a bit of time for the volunteers to figure out the pattern correctly, Alexis said of the diamond-shaped pattern of knot-making to create the nets.
Some of the teachers at the school are thinking they may be able to use the idea to begin a business, said Alexis.
School director Bill Owen says Jablonski’s idea inspired his students.
“Students intend to weave volleyball and tennis nets too,” Owen said. “There is a market for these in town.”
The school sanitary prefects and teachers have a renewed commitment to prevent litter on campus, Owen said. “She envisions that youth all over Africa will do the same if prompted,” he said. “Alexis has confidence that the youth of today will make a positive impact on the global problems facing us.”
For her initiative, Jablonski has been asked to join the board of the For One World non-profit organization where she will serve as the head of its Plastic Initiative - Youth Empowered Solutions.
“Alexis is aiming high now,” Owen said. “She is inspired. Alexis knows that she has the knack to promote awareness and commitment to social change in others and in far-away places ... Alexis has shown that she will not back down in the face of resistance or the unknown. Rather, she will find alternative ways to succeed. I am looking forward to seeing how she does this. I have confidence that she will continue to surprise me and her SJA colleagues if not herself as she moves forward.”
That sentiment was echoed by Frank Bowen, who was instrumental in starting the Ghana connection.
“This year at the Academy the theme is, ‘What starts here, changes the world’. Alexis is a hard worker who can make things happen. I am confident that she will continue the journey that she has started here at the Academy and go on to change the world.”
James Mattison, who helped start the Ayi Owen International School more than two decades ago, agrees.
“I was like Alexis and traveled to Ghana 20 plus years ago,” Mattison said. “I saw a need, formed a group of students in the USA and helped start a school in Ghana (Ayi Owen School) with 20 kids, now that school has nearly 500 kids.”
“She was teaching students to take action, try and learn,” Mattison said. “Alexis believes youth can make an impact, she made an impact and she’s working now to inspire and organize others into action. She’s exactly the story of youth action we need to share to help inspire others.”
On Capstone Day at St. Johnsbury Academy on May 3, Alexis will present two major solutions to the problems of plastic in Ghana, she said this week.
Step one is to promote awareness. Step two is to empower youth to take action.
“I will be working to raise money in an effort to find like-minded students’ ideas to solve the plastic program,” said Alexis. “With this money I want to organize contests for youths (middle schools, high schools and university) around the world to compete for solutions to solving the plastic problem.”
“We will use social media to organize contests virtually and vote on them,” she explained. “The best ideas that are the most successful will win. The local youth leaders will have their travel covered to several regional locations for a virtual global summit on plastic with business and government leadership. The youth leaders will pitch their ideas and I will use the money to fund the best ideas from around the world.”
Donations to the For One World environmental committee — which Alexis is now on the board of — will fund student-led entrepreneurial efforts to eliminate plastic waste on a global scale. Visit the organization’s website at foroneworld.org to find out more.
Information from: The Caledonian-Record, http://www.caledonianrecord.com