07/15/2010 09:14 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Teaching Kids (and the Rest of Us) About the Oil Spill

I was recently listening to a friend talk about the BP catastrophe, and she told me that her three-year old asked what they could do to help. She thought about it, and suggested that he could donate the money in his piggie bank to an organization which is helping to save the animals. Of course his little three-year old self was all over that, so that is what they did.

As we talked, we wondered if there were more concrete actions kids could take, in addition to sending money to a group they've never heard of and most likely can't visit. Now, this is not a small question, considering how I'm not even sure of the best ways for adults to help. I spied a disposable water bottle on a table nearby, and it struck me: what better, more direct way to teach kids-- and adults, for that matter-- about how we've gotten ourselves into this mess in the first place?

Because this spill is not just about BP being a careless, heartless company, though that may be true. And it's not just about our reliance on petroleum to provide fuel for our vehicles, though that is most certainly a huge part of this. It's also very seriously about how entirely dependent our entire lives have become on petroleum to provide most of the products we use in our day.

The laptop I'm typing this pissed-off-at-plastic post on? Probably about 50% made from petroleum derivatives (that's an unscientific guess). The ceiling fan whirling overhead? Those blades are not made from wood. My alarm clock, the light switch, the chair underneath me -- plastic. The bottle holding my sunscreen, and some of the ingredients in the sunscreen itself? Plastic and petroleum-derivatives. The sleeping bag I'll use camping this weekend is made from high-tech polyester, which is made from petroleum -- ditto the nylon tent and backpack and trail shoes and bottle containing the eco-friendly soap I use in the woods. The Metrocard transit pass I use around town, the cellphone I use to stay connected, the sunglasses which protect my eyes from the glare of the city sun, the coating on my wire bike baskets -- all plastic, from petroleum. The containers I use to store my healthy, carefully chosen food. The nylon material used in my beloved reusable shopping bags. The screw-top on my stainless steel reusable water bottles. All part of my effort to make better, less impactful choices, and all plastic. The irony is not lost on me.

And this is just me -- one individual who buys as little as possible, and tries to make the best choices possible. When we multiply this across the nation, let alone the world, we're talking about entire days and entire populations who are living petroleum days from sunup to sundown. It's no wonder we're in such a mess!

And it's not our fault, exactly, kind of, at least to a certain extent. When this newfangled wonder material of the future hit the shelves, consumers were amazed and delighted -- plastic made most everything lighter, more durable, and cheaper. What's not to love?

Well, now we know what's not to love. Consumers and manufacturers became so hypnotized by petroleum-based plastics that development of other, perhaps less negatively impactful, materials was effectively ceased. Whereas many paints used to be made with plant-based oils, they almost exclusively switched to petroleum. Plastics because almost exclusively made from petroleum, even though "...the first plastic ever developed was a "plant based plastic," a cotton-derived product designed to replace ivory." Our lives are now so incredibly plastic-based that it seems nearly impossible to extract ourselves, though many folks are certainly trying.

So, back to the original intent of this post: the idea my friend and I came up with while wondering how kids could "help out" regarding The Big Leak is by collecting disposable water bottles in school, houses of worship, town greens, etc. In NY state, these bottles are redeemable for a $.05 deposit, which kids could send to an organization of their choosing. Along the way, we have a prime way to teach them about petroleum, plastic, recyclability, water rights, the crazy story of bottled water, transportation, corporate (ir)responsibilty, and citizen action. We can tell them that if they fill a disposable bottle 1/3 full with petroleum, that's how much of the stuff is required to produce the plastic bottle and ship the bottled water to the store. We can teach them about the alternatives to plastic, and ways we can live to minimize our plastic intakes.

And while none of these things will plug that hole or save the turtles, it will give us a glimmer of a chance to come out of this debacle with a raised consciousness.

If you haven't yet seen this film titled "The Story of Bottled Water," please take a few minutes to watch--it's full of fascinating information: