Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Saving the Planet: Q&A with Girl Scout Zoé Mueller

From headlines in newspapers to teen activists on social media, the profusion of dialog about global warming, pollution, and other critical environmental issues we’re facing can be overwhelming and confusing. How can I get involved? What can I do to make an impact? Where do I even get started? You’re not alone in asking these questions.

With Earth Day quickly approaching, we want to feel inspired, get involved, and take action. You can get going by doing one simple thing every day! No one knows that better than Silver Award Girl Scout Zoé Mueller, a full-time student and an activist who educates her community about the importance of eliminating plastic bags. In our discussion with Zoé, we touch on how she got started, what inspired her, how being a Girl Scout helped her start a project on a subject she is passionate about, and what YOU can do to help the planet today!

What inspired you to take action in your community to protect the environment?

When I started to think about what I wanted to do for my Silver Award, I knew that the issues that spoke to me the most had to do with the environment. I had seen information about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the efforts by Boyan Slat and his organization, The Ocean Clean Up, to get rid of plastics in the oceans. I knew that the efforts to clean it up would be a constant battle if we weren’t doing something to stop the excess plastic garbage that we are creating. Living in Florida, I feel it is even more essential that we do everything we can to protect our environment and wildlife because we have a fragile and beautiful ecosystem here.

It really hit home with me on a trip to the grocery store. I watched how many plastic bags were being carried out to cars in just the short amount of time that I was there. I realized that this was happening all over my community and hour by hour the problem would grow. I went home and started researching. I found out that on average each plastic bag is used for only 12 minutes and each of us uses about 300 a year. That adds up to a lot of bags in my community alone, and unfortunately, those bags will outlive us all!

A few more facts that inspired me to take action:
  • Tiny particles of photodegraded plastic outnumber plankton six to one.
  • Every second, 60,000 plastic bags are used globally.
  • Plastic pollution kills 1 million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals every year.

What is the Plastic Bag-Free Mount Dora campaign about?

It is a plastic bag reduction program. I developed it because there is a state law in Florida that prohibits banning or taxing the use of plastic bags. When I found out about the law, which was passed as an attachment to a larger, unrelated bill, I was discouraged. After thinking about how I could address the issue, I remembered something I had learned about Canada at a Girl Scout World Thinking Day event. In Canada, they give out tickets when they see citizens doing a good deed. When I first heard that I thought it was kind of funny, but I remembered it and realized that this could be the solution to my problem. Rather than banning or charging a fee for plastic bag use, I could create a program that points out businesses that don’t use plastic bags. All the businesses that offer an alternative to plastic bags in my town have signs in their windows that say “Mount Dora Plastic Bag-Free Business” with a logo I designed. Not only do they draw attention to the issue, but they also encourage other businesses to make the change in order to be part of the program.

What is the scale of damage that plastic bags cause our communities and planet?

It is an enormous problem that is too easily ignored. The problem is that plastic bags do not biodegrade, they photodegrade. That means that over time they break down into smaller and smaller pieces but they never really disappear. Scientists estimate each bag will take 1,000 years to decompose. Since the number is compounding by the minute, the problem has gotten out of hand. People really need to be made aware so that they can make better choices. It is so easy to bring your own bag or ask for paper. Businesses choose to offer you plastic bags because they are so cheap. We need to see that really they are not cheap at all. They cost a lot to clean up and are causing problems for wildlife. In the long run, as plastics enter our own food chain, we are poisoning ourselves. Once people have the facts, it seems crazy that we would still continue to allow plastic bags in our communities.

How has being a Girl Scout helped you with your campaign?

If I hadn’t been a Girl Scout, I probably would not have started this project. Through the Take Action projects and Journeys, Girl Scouts taught me that if I see a problem I can do something about it. I have learned step-by-step how to take on bigger projects, and I learned how to speak out even when I feel nervous. You can’t think that someone else will fix things—you have to be the one to do it. If we all did that, the world would be a totally different place!

What would be your ideal, eco-friendly way to celebrate Earth Day?

I would love to have the chance to speak at Earth Day events and spend time with other Girl Scouts, sharing my fun patch program that encourages them to not accept plastic bags. If each of us committed to not accepting plastic bags when we shop, we could make a big impact.

What is one thing that we could start doing tomorrow that would help?

Start bringing your own bag when you shop. Sometimes we don’t even need a bag. We can carry something small in our hand, or put it in a purse.

How can the Girl Scout community support your campaign or get in touch with you?

I have developed a fun patch program that I would love to share with as many
Girl Scouts as I can. I would love to come to meetings and help girls earn the patch, or if you live too far away, I can join you via FaceTime. When you go shopping and bring your own bag, you can post a photo on Instagram, use the hashtag #300less, and tag me @Zoémuellerofficial and @plasticfreemountdora.