There are many young climate activists that are leading the way on climate action and fighting the biggest environmental threats our world is facing. We recently spoke to 2022 TIME Kid of the Year Finalist Cash Daniels – aka ‘The Conservation Kid’ – a 12-year-old American environmentalist who is devoting his time to helping clean up waste from his community, especially along the Tennessee River. He now has a very ambitious plan: pick up one million pounds of trash around the world by the end of 2022.
Age is just a number and young climate activists have definitely proven that. Various environmental movements led by passionate teens have emerged in recent years. Greta Thunberg and her global army have made significant efforts to raise awareness on climate change and inspired worldwide climate strikes. But Fridays for Future is just one example of the brave young people out there ready to dedicate their lives to the environment and make the world a better place.
Earth.Org (EO) recently spoke to Cash Daniels, a 12-year-old kid from Tennessee, United States. Despite his young age, he has achieved some incredible things. Since developing his passion for marine wildlife during the recurrent family trips to the Tennessee River, he became aware of one of the world’s most pressing issues: waste pollution.
The US produces more than 12% of the planet’s trash, with each American throwing away 2.2 kilogrammes (4.9 pounds) of trash every day – nearly 216 kilogrammes (1,800 pounds) every year. That’s the equivalent of a hippopotamus! Often, waste from landfills makes its way into the environment and waterways, threatening biodiversity and drinking water supplies. More than 8 million tonnes of plastic waste washes into the world’s oceans every year. At the current trend, experts estimate that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
After learning about the detrimental consequences of plastic pollution on marine wildlife and human health, Cash started devoting his free time to cleaning up trash in rivers with other teen environmentalists, collecting nearly 1,000 aluminium cans a week for an entire year – reaching up to a total of more than one ton of items.
In January 2022, together with his friend Ella Grace, he founded Cleanup Kids, a non-profit organisation that engages youth in action campaigns, speeches, film screenings, and other initiatives to protect the environment and its natural resources as well as to raise awareness among young people to develop a passion for nature and understand how much human life depends on it. Indeed, as he puts it: “You cannot protect what you do not love”.
Through his organisation and the support of Keep America Beautiful (KAB), America’s largest community improvement nonprofit, Cash is encouraging kids to collectively pick up one million pounds across the globe before the end of 2022.
Figure 1: Cash Daniels and Ella Grace, Co-Founders of The Cleanup Kids
EO: First of all, congratulations on your huge achievements and on being a TIME’s Kid of the Year finalist! At just 12, you’ve already done some remarkable things. What made you first become interested in the environment and the issues related to waste pollution and who inspired you to start picking up litter?
Cash: Thank you! Ever since I could remember, I have loved fish and wildlife, so my parents began encouraging me to follow my interests and study what I love. My family and I visit the Tennessee River a lot, and I started getting worried after seeing how much litter flows in the water. I decided that I had to do my own research on the issue of plastics in our rivers and oceans. After learning about how big of a problem this was, I was inspired to start doing my own river cleanups at the age of seven.
Since 80% of ocean trash actually starts on land and is swept into rivers, we must shift our focus upstream and not focus solely on our oceans.
EO: Who are some of your biggest inspirations?
Cash: Greta Thunberg is one of my biggest inspirations because she has been able to accomplish so much at such a young age. She is attending events with global leaders and is pushing them to do more to protect the future of the environment and for young people like me.
I also look up to local government leaders. I have spoken in my state capital [of Tennessee] and met with state representatives. They do care about our environment and they are listening. Kids need to keep using their voices and believe in themselves. Together, I am strongly convinced that we can make change happen.
EO: How did your collaboration with the Keep America Beautiful (KAB) organisation start? What is their mission and in what way does it align with your principles and ideals?
Cash: I have worked with Keep Tennessee Beautiful since I was 7. The Organisation provided me with free tools such as garbage bags and gloves, and promoted the clean-up initiative through social media and other channels. Thanks to their support, I was able to meet many people who shared my passion for restoration. After working together for some time, they asked me if I was interested in helping them get the word out about their 24th annual Great American Cleanup and #152andYou, a campaign organised by Keep America Beautiful (KAB) to challenge people across the country to join the fight against litter.
According to the KAB 2020 National Litter Study, there are nearly 50 billion pieces of litter on the ground. If everyone in the United States picked up 152 pieces of trash at the same time, we’d be litter-free! So, as soon as I learned about the campaign, I knew I needed to partner with them to help further my own goal of encouraging people to pick up one million pounds of litter in 2022!
EO: In 2022, you co-founded the club Cleanup Kids. Why is it so important for you to get young people involved in your mission to clean up rivers and seas across the world? How is that initiative going?
Cash: It is extremely important for kids and youth to be involved in these environmental campaigns and initiatives because we are the future and one day, we will be leaders having to make crucial decisions for our planet. If we do not learn to lead the change now that we are young, when will we learn it?
So far, The Cleanup Kids has more than 50 members across the US, Canada, and Australia.
EO: In recent years, we have seen younger generations become increasingly aware of the looming climate crisis and willing to take action. Do you think young climate activists have a good shot at changing the world?
Cash: Sometimes I feel like the world sets limits on what young people are supposed to be able to do simply because of their age. Every day, there are more and more kids and teenagers accomplishing amazing things. I think young climate activists are already changing the world little by little.
Figure 2: TIME Kid of the Year Finalist Cash Daniels
EO: Do you think COVID-19 has forced people to reconsider their values and importance of the environment, or actually made things worse?
Cash: I think a lot of people started exploring nature more during the pandemic as a way to cope with lockdown restrictions that deprived them of most ways to interact with other people within the urban setting. Because of this, I am sure they developed a new appreciation for the environment that will make them feel like they need to protect it more.
On the other hand, certain things have been made worse. The KAB 2020 National Litter Study found about 207 million pieces of PPE gloves and masks were along America’s roads and waterways. And this is certainly an issue that needs to be taken seriously!
EO: Many young people experience climate anxiety and climate activists burn out. How do you stay positive and take care of your mental health?
Cash: I do a lot with my best friend Ella, who I co-founded The Cleanup Kids with. Having a friend who shares the same passions as you and who you can share your ideas with is extremely important to me.
Moreover, being involved with groups like KAB and just being outside doing clean-ups is actually very relaxing for me. It is almost like a treasure hunt as you never know what you will find. And you are cleaning up the planet at the same time. Isn’t that wonderful?
EO: Since you’re part of the current younger generation, how optimistic or hopeful are you about the future and climate change?
Cash: Working with other volunteers and seeing people outside enjoying the environment gives me hope. I strongly believe that the more that people fall in love with nature, the more they are likely to do something to preserve it. You cannot protect what you do not love, so people need to fall in love with the outdoors again. And of course, having prominent organisations that are dedicated to the environment and concretely support you in protecting the world is also extremely important.
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