How one 11-year-old is cleaning up our oceans from Tennessee

Updated: Aug 15, 2021

Every story starts somewhere. For Cash Daniels of Tennessee, it was a straw. This simple piece of plastic set him on a mission to protect the ocean, and it begun right in his backyard with the Tennessee River — a river with more plastic pollution than any other in the world.

On a family vacation to Florida, then 7-year-old Cash found a plastic straw while strolling on the beach. While most kids might toss the tiny, hollow tube aside, this little piece of plastic would inspire Cash to start a remarkable journey that no one, not even his parents, might’ve imagined.

Four years after picking up his first straw, now 11-year-old Cash has collected more than 11,000 pounds of trash, created 15 fishing-line recycling bins, written a children’s book, started a conservation nonprofit with his best friend, Ella, and became the first person to win the Youth Conservationist award two years in-a-row by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation.

IThat’s an impressive resume at any age. But for Cash, it doesn’t matter what age you are. Helping to save and protect the environment and the oceans is a matter of making one small choice after another, one straw at a time.

“You are never too old or too young to get started. I started slow, and it led to something bigger,” he said of his actions. “Just beginning with one thing led me to want to create more and inspire others to do the same.”

Saving the planet starts at home

Learning about the connection between lakes, rivers, and Oceans was a big motivator for Cash to go into conservation. He spent most of his childhood fishing along the riverways in Chattanooga with his dad, falling in love with marine life and water. But when he discovered that 80 percent of all trash from land or rivers ends up in the ocean, it inspired him to start his water-saving efforts at home and hosted a clean-up along local waterways and the Tennessee River.

The Tennessee River is a 625-mile stretch of one of the world’s most ecologically rich and diverse freshwater ecosystems. It is home to more than 300 species of fish, 125 species of freshwater mussels. And sadly, more microplastics than almost any other river in the world.

Microplastics are tiny portions of non-biodegradable plastics that are as small as a grain of rice, or less than five millimeters. The danger of microplastics is that they can block the gastrointestinal tracts of organisms, animals, and water species, causing starvation or toxic buildup that is harmful to the ecosystem and food chain. Dr. Andreas Fath, the scientist who swam this river to collect the data samples, said the cause is most likely due to the lack of recycling and large amount of littering in the area.

It was clear, someone needed to do something. Cash enlisted his family to help with his first clean-up in the area. Quickly, he realized what a big job this would be and began to expand his efforts to include other volunteers and community members. He knew that getting others to help would not only make a difference at home but would also leave a lasting impression that could inspire more action.

“I want people to remember how much trash they found; how dirty it is. When you don’t pay attention and don’t realize how much trash there is — you don’t really see it,” Cash said. “But once you’ve learned about it and what it does, you see trash everywhere. You keep seeing it. You keep seeing it because you want it to stop, and you want to do something about it.”

Joining Forces for a cleaner ocean

Cash’s best friend, Ella Galaski-Rossen, is one of his biggest supporters and partners in his conservation efforts. While they met on Instagram a few years ago, it wasn’t until they came together at the Ocean Heroes Bootcamp in 2019 that the