Student Innovation Challenge
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2021 Innovation Challenge - Plastic Pollution

Families, students, and other groups from around the St. Louis community will join EarthWays Center in a design challenge where innovation, creativity and imagination are the key to solving real-world environmental problems. Through this challenge, our community will build their understanding of plastic pollution issues, environmental connections, and problem-solving and technology skills as they work to design and develop solutions. Help discover where the plastic pollution is, why it is there, and what we can do about it.

Where Is the Plastic Pollution?
Why Is It There?
What Can We Do About It?

The 2021 Innovation Challenge is partnering with the Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative to support our St. Louis community in collecting data about plastic pollution and brainstorming potential solutions to the issue. Participants will do a clean-up and data collection April 1–25 and submit their solution by April 30. All teams that submit a solution will be entered to win a zero waste prize pack.

submit innovation button

For Teachers and Educators

National Geographic assembled a group of resources to support learning about plastic pollution. EarthWays Center put together a sample student worksheet to help guide students through the Innovation Challenge. In partnership with MSD's Project Clear, EarthWays has also developed a free video lesson using the EnviroScape model to demonstrate how pollution enters our waterways.

K–12 Educator Resources on Plastic Pollution
Sample Student Worksheet for Innovation Challenge
Project Clear EnviroScape Lesson

Who Should Join the Challenge?

Families, student groups, scout groups, or friends—no matter what your group is, you are welcome to join EarthWays for this year’s Innovation Challenge. All content will be aimed at children and students ages 6–18, but adults are welcome to assist with clean ups and sending in project ideas.

Where is the Challenge?

The Challenge is wherever you are! Groups are encouraged to collect data on trash in their neighborhoods or can collect at Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative designated sites near the river. Use the map below to find a clean up event or colleciton site near you or check out the list at 1Mississippi. After data collection, groups can develop solutions based on their data and submit them to EarthWays Center.

Would you like to receive updates and reminders about the Innovation Challenge: Plastic Pollution? Sign up to receive updates.

Innovation Challenge Updates

Send questions on the Innovation Challenge to

Where is the Plastic Pollution?

The first part of the Innovation Challenge is dedicated to collecting data using the Marine Debris Tracker app as part of the Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative. This should be done April 1–25.

Did you know that 80 percent of marine plastic pollution comes from inland sources? By joining the Innovation Challenge and collecting data, you can join other schools, organizations, towns, and individuals to inform decision makers in our watershed about addressing the problem of inland plastic traveling to the ocean.

It's easy to download and register in the Marine Debris Tracker app. You can attend a community cleanup event, organize your own classroom or neighborhood event, or collect data on your own! When you open the app, look for the MRCTI list and record your data there anytime between now and April 25th. Remember to take a screenshot of your clean up map in the Marine Debris Tracker for you project submission.

Remember safety as you are cleaning up. Always use gloves to pick up trash and use you best judgement with sharp items, such as glass. Wear bright colored clothing so that vehicles can see you along busy roads.

To collect the best data, do your clean-up and data tracking for 30 minutes. Read more about how to track data for this project here.

How do I track data using Marine Debris Tracker?

Or watch a video on how to use the Marine Debris Tracker.

Why Is It There?

After you have done your clean up and uploaded your data through the Marine Debris Tracker, the next step is to think about why the trash is there. It is best to look at the data you collected by logging in to your account through the browser version of Marine Debris Tracker. There you can look at your data and the data of other community scientists on a map or by downloading a spreadsheet.

Look for patterns in what you collected. Below are some questions to help get you started looking for patterns and to think critically about the data.

  • Where is the plastic pollution located in my community?
  • Where is the plastic pollution coming from? Why?
  • How have patterns of plastic pollution in the community changed over time? (This can be based on your observations or research.)
  • Why do people in our community use single-use plastics?
  • What are the alternatives to single-use plastic and what are the barriers to using them?
  • How do people in the community learn about the effects of plastic pollution?
  • What perspectives about plastic waste are held by community members and public servants?
What Can We Do About It?

Once you have identified patterns in the data, now it is time to think about what we can do about it. Brainstorm a list of actions that we can take to reduce plastic pollution in our environment based on your own observations. Is it best to add trash or recycling bins to certain areas? Should we be seeking more plastic alternatives in our packaging? What new policy or community action would help? At EarthWays Center, we want to hear what your innovative solutions and ideas are to this problem of plastic pollution in our water.

Tell us about your solution in one of the following ways.

  1. Video that is 2 minutes or less
  2. Picture of a solution you designed
  3. 1 page written description
  4. Letter to a local, state, or national official describing your idea

Submit your ideas by April 30 and be entered into a drawing for a Zero Waste Prize Package!

Submission Guidelines

Please include the following items in your submission.

  1. A screenshot or written description of the trash you collected
  2. A drawing or written description of the patterns you observed in the pollution
  3. Your solution in one of the forms outlined above
submit innovation button

If you have questions, please contact Maggie McCoy at

Funding for this program provided by the St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste Management District.





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