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A Solar Change


In 2015, over 230,000 students aged 9-14 from 80 countries participated in the First Lego League (FLL) Trash Trek Challenge. Along with building a robot and sending it on missions as well as learning about FLL Core Values, teams were required to conduct research and come up with an innovative solution related to trash. Solar Change of El Camino Creek Elementary School in Carlsbad set out to slow down the heavy flow of plastic into the ocean, with the ultimate focus on reducing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In speaking with Surfrider Foundation’s Dr. Emelia DeForce, Solar Change learned that plastic is messing up the ocean ecosystem. Fish eat plastic, and starve from a blocked digestive system. The Patch is difficult to address since the plastic is the same size as sea life, making it hard to collect, it is enormous (twice the size of Texas!) And most importantly, no one country is responsible – it’s all of us!

Through their own research and talking with city and county officials, Solar Change learned that current solutions to keeping trash out of the ocean (such as storm drain cleaning and capture devices, beach and waterway clean up days, and more trash cans at the beach) are simply not enough. The EPA says that West Coast cities spend $300,000 a year on beach clean ups. Most of the problem lies with people at the beach who are not picking up their trash. The team interviewed Big Belly, a company who makes solar trash compactors. Solar Change set out to figure out --- how we can get people to change their behavior and how can cities save money on beach collections and clean ups?

The team created “Solar Change” ---- a solar trash compactor with a built-in coin redemption machine, covered with pictures of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and sea life effected by trash, educating people right at the beach. A beachgoer walks up, puts their plastic or trash in the machine and receives a coin redemption or change – changing their behavior! These machines will be placed at beaches – areas that have the most trash that goes into the ocean. They will avoid trash overflow from full trash cans that blow trash into the ocean. Sensors alert whether to do pick ups, saving money for cities, also helpful for remote beaches and times of the year when a beach is not used as much. Lastly, it gives beach goers a reason to pick up their trash and others’ trash by rewarding them with change for putting trash in the right place, and not just on clean up days!

Cities would buy Solar Change machines, and put them at key exit points at beaches. They will restock the coin machines with the money they save through fewer trash pickups, less fines, and money they earn from turning recyclables into centers. Solar Change rewards people for recycling and makes them feel positive about helping their city and helping the oceans – a win/win!