Kristina Kessler, left, a junior at The Oakwood School; Landen Williams, a freshman at D.H. Conley High School, and Jackie Lin, a senior at Conley, pick up plastic and other trash on Saturday at Greensprings Park. The event was a collaboration of Love a Sea Turtle, Bye Bye Plastics and CycLAST.

Among volunteers spending part of their Labor Day weekend cleaning up litter along the greenway, almost none were old enough to remember a time when grocery customers were asked to choose between paper and plastic. For them, so-called T-shirt bags, thin, plastic bags with built-in handles, have always been the norm.

But these environmentally conscious teens want to change that. They are advocating for government and consumers to get a handle on plastic bag use.

More than a dozen volunteers, mostly high school students, gathered Saturday at Greensprings Park to clean up plastic and other trash littering the grounds and the waterway. Representatives of the local conservation and youth development group Love a Sea Turtle and its affiliate organization, cycLAST, teamed up with Bye Bye Plastic Bags NC for the second annual event.

“Basically these are all youth-led initiatives that are about environmental awareness and environmental advocacy,” said Heleyna Clark, 14, founder of Bye Bye Plastic Bags NC. “We’re all working toward the same goal and have the same endeavors, so we tend to work together.”

Clark, a sophomore at The Oakwood School, founded the North Carolina division of Bye Bye Plastic Bags after watching a video of two teens in Bali talking about the youth-led initiative promoting a ban on plastic bags. The organization has grown to include 40 teams on five continents. The North Carolina chapter is one of five in North America.

“I really wanted to become involved because preserving the environment and conservancy is something that I’m really passionate about and have always been,” Heleyna said.

“We see people entering grocery stores and coming out of grocery stores every single day with tons and tons of plastic bags, and if they were aware or informed of the damage that that single-use plastic does to the environment, I strongly believe that the majority of them would not use them in the first place,” she said. “It’s such an easy transition for someone to just take a reusable bag instead.”

Love a Sea Turtle volunteer Jae Yoon, 14, has a similar goal. After working on an initiative called Better Bag Solutions, he and friend David Yoon (no relation) began Plastic Free NC in November.

The effort seeks to discourage consumers from choosing single-use plastic bags, straws and bottles in favor of alternatives that are considered more environmentally friendly.

Jae said he decided to become involved after seeing plastic bags caught in trees after a hurricane and watching a video about how birds and other animals can die from ingesting or becoming tangled in plastic bags.

“It was heartbreaking to see animals die because of someone else’s trash,” the D.H. Conley High School freshman said. “It really drove me to work here and be committed here.”

For Annika Stoakes, an avid cyclist, seeing litter strewn along the road and across trails where she rides is what moved her to take action. A member of cycLAST, which encourages bike riding and environmental stewardship, the 15-year-old Conley student helped to lead Saturday’s cleanup event.

CycLAST founder Dan Hemme, an executive board member for Love A Sea Turtle, said cyclists and environmental groups are naturally good partners.

“Biking is a very healthy, active and environmentally friendly way to get around, and you notice things that you wouldn’t otherwise notice,” he said at Saturday’s cleanup, which involved volunteers traveling on foot and on bikes to rid the greenway of trash.

“You can’t avoid seeing it (litter) when you’re riding a bike because you’re in the midst of it,” he said. “Issues of plastic pollution, of pollution in general are inescapable when you ride a bike, so it’s a good fit. That’s one of the reasons we have this partnership out here today with Bye Bye Plastic Bags because those two things fit so well together.”

Besides partnerships, Clark said Bye Bye Plastic Bags is advocating for legislation to address problems with plastic waste. She recently met with N.C. Rep. Kandie Smith to discuss House Bill 823, which addresses the issue of single-use plastics. Among other things, the bill would direct the environmental review commission to study the issue of single-use plastics and would increase revenue distributed to cities and counties with programs to reduce plastic waste.

“We would like eventually for there to be a law that bans single-use plastic bags completely in our state,” Clark said. “But this is a start.”

Hemme, who at 30 is twice the age of many of the greenway cleanup volunteers, said the teens’ knowledge of and commitment to conservation is inspiring. Teens from LAST and Bye Bye Plastic Bags addressed the City Council last month.

“Oftentimes these kids are the smartest in the room at the issues that they care about and that they’re talking about,” he said. “That’s what’s so impressive about this and about Annika and Helayna and all of the other kids “

Contact Kim Grizzard at or call 329-9578.