Cash Daniels once found a “creepy doll head” in the river. “We find more strange things than you’d think,” he says: a tiny Mickey Mouse figurine, two old cassette tapes with songs that dated back long before 13-year-old Daniels was born, shotgun shells. But mostly he unearths cans, straws and plastic bottles that threaten the wildlife he treasures. He posts some of his most bizarre finds on Instagram and then usually tosses or recycles the trash—though a friend kept the creepy doll head.
Daniels spends several hours every week cleaning up cans and bottles in the rivers with other teen environmentalists in Chattanooga, Tenn. Together, they have collected more than one ton of aluminum cans, nearly 1000 cans a week for a year. His goal for 2022 to even more ambitious. In January, he co-founded a club called the Cleanup Kids with his best friend, Ella Grace, a fellow home school student who lives in Canada. The two met at a three-day bootcamp in Vancouver called Ocean Heroes and now video chat almost every day. Together, they decided they will encourage kids to pick up 1 million pounds of trash across the globe before the end of the year.
“We just thought of a big number so that people would try to accomplish it,” he says. “And 1 million sounds like an even and large number.”
Daniels says he first developed a passion for wildlife when he was three. “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved animals,” Daniels says with a charming Southern twang. Marine life, especially, intrigues him. He is SCUBA certified and once swam with 30 nine-foot-long sharks in Florida. Back at home in Tennessee, when he is not running river cleanups or working on homework, he’s SCUBA diving virtually with his VR headset that he got as a gift. And in his real home, has taken in two turtles as pets, Camo and Blue, though he and his brother call them “Shaggy” and “Scooby” because the reptiles never stop eating.
When he began discovering trash on walks along the river with his family, he immediately thought of his favorite sea creatures. “As soon as I found straws and stuff on the beach, I knew it would harm the wildlife that I love, so I had to do something to protect it.” (Naturally, his favorite superhero is Aquaman, the guardian of our waterways. Daniels says if he could have a superpower, it would be “destroying all plastics in the universe.”)
His mission now is saving the earth’s rivers, which he points out are even more polluted that the world’s oceans. “Eighty percent of the ocean’s trash comes from rivers,” he says. In 2019, he adopted the name Conservation Kid on Instagram, and started posting about things like how something as simple as a discarded face mask can entangle, choke and kill turtles, birds and fish. Mask waste has increased an estimated 9000% since the pandemic began, and improperly disposed of masks are a new bugaboo of Daniels.
Though he mostly speaks to other teens, Daniels has found that adults are often persuaded by his argument that cleaning up, recycling and eradicating plastic ought to be a selfish act for humanity: When plastics break down they can wind up in our drinking water. Daniels has lobbied his family to buy canned goods over plastics and opt for reusable straws and silverware over the disposable kind. He has met with the mayor of his city, and his experiences speaking with influential grownups has convinced him that adults can change their habits. “I think after they talk to me, they think twice about dropping a cup on the ground,” he says.
But in truth the burden to save the planet has landed on children like him. “Kids may be a small percent of the population, but we’re 100% of the future,” he says. “And we can save the world.
Watch the Kid of the Year broadcast special, hosted by Trevor Noah, on Nickelodeon on Wednesday, Feb. 9, at 7:30pm/6:30pm CT to find out which finalist will be named TIME Kid of the Year
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