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A teen with a mission

Tracey Edstein  |  14 February 2019

Sophia Skarparis’ campaign to ban plastic bags began as a school project. It’s since led her to a Royal meeting, and has no signs of letting up.

Depending on your age, you may or may not be able to recall the school work you did when you were 15. It’s unlikely though that your life has been changed by a school project.

A LIFE-CHANGING PROJECT

Not only has Sophia Skarparis’ life been monumentally changed by a personal project she started as part of the International Baccalaureat Programme (IBM) at Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College, North Sydney, but she is making a substantial contribution to the health of the local environment and beyond.

As a Year 10 student, Sophia took seriously Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical letter, Laudato Si’ – On Care for our Common Home. Pope Francis wrote, ‘Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.’

Having been involved in a Climate Change petition through Our Lady of the Way, North Sydney, parish, Sophia determined to collect 10,000 signatures for a petition to ban both single use and heavy retail plastic bags in NSW.

POWER OF PETITION

As word of the petition spread, avenues opened. Local schools, Catholic and others, were ‘on side’ and the signatures began to grow. Online signatures were not permitted.

Markets are great gathering places and this provided another source of people happy to come on board.

Sophia became aware of a variety of organisations and companies which valued the environment and were willing to support her, including Boomerang Alliance, Surfrider Foundation Australia, Take 3, Pollinate Energy and Compost-a-Pak.

Stories were published which spread the word and helped greatly with the petition. Perhaps the most significant was an article in Australian Geographic in June 2018. Australian Geographic, with over half a million readers, duly nominated Sophia as its Young Conservationist of the Year.

A meeting with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian was underwhelming but Sophia pressed on, determined to reach the target of 10,000 signatures. All the while, she was learning more about the impact of plastic bags and her determination to demand effective change only grew.

LEGISLATE AND EDUCATE

Sophia says, ‘My mantra is “legislate and educate” and I’m not going to stop.’

The petition has been tabled and discussed in NSW Parliament. At the time of writing, the NSW government stands firm on not banning plastic bags in NSW. The Labor Government and the Greens support the banning of plastic bags. NSW Labor leader, Michael Daley, has introduced legislation, but it has to be approved by the government.

It was a thrill for Sophia to be named Australian Geographic Young Conservationist of the Year in October and her enhanced profile gave her a new platform to spread the word. Her passion is only intensifying.

‘I believe my generation can be the ‘game changers’. Through the use of social media we can mobilise interested supporters in a way that has not been seen before’, she says.

‘Our generation is seeing the negative impacts on marine and bird life that plastic is having. We want the change where we can reuse bags, coffee cups, not use plastic straws or balloons and reduce plastic packaging of food.’

A ROYAL MEETING

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex presented the Australian Geographic Awards.

‘Prince Harry said to me that I should continue my efforts which I definitely intend to do’, Sophia recalls.

For more information visit www.plasticfreesophia.com.

Tracey Edstein is a freelance writer and a former teacher and magazine editor in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, NSW.

A SNAPSHOT

Sophia’s website, Plastic Free Sophia, includes links to a number of short films which inform viewers of the impact of plastic bags, on land and in the ocean.

A snapshot:

  • In New South Wales we use more than three billion plastic bags a year.
  • Every piece of plastic ever created is still in existence today in some shape or form.
  • Microplastics are found in humans; on average 20 microplastic particles per 10g of human waste.
  • By the time I am 47 years old there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by mass.
  • Approximately eight million metric tons of plastic pollution end up in our oceans each year.
  • 52% of the world’s sea turtles have ingested plastic or other human rubbish.

 

View reflection questions and activities for this article. 

 

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