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 they decided to create their nonprofit, the CleanUp Kids.
“We hope to be a really big nonprofit that eliminates plastic in the U.S. and Canada,” Cash noted. “Our goal is to make an impact where we live. We want to inform kids and adults in the landlocked states on how their actions are connected to the water and the ocean.”
Even though they live in different countries — Cash in the U.S. and Ella in Canada — they still talk every day on FaceTime. Over the past few years, they have grown to be more like family than friends and love to meet up when they can. Before the pandemic, they took a trip to Florida where they could spend all day in the water, snorkeling, swimming, doing beach clean-ups, and spending time together.
“Cash and his brother Colt are my best friends,” Ella smiled. “Actually, no. We’re family. My family loves their family, and we all love spending time together.”
A Family Effort
Cash nodded and smiled along as she said this and talked about how their family supports them in their conservation work. He explained that while he was the first in his family to want to recycle and do clean-ups, they all work together now.
“Before Cash, we didn’t recycle, didn’t pay attention to our waste and never considered how much plastic we used and threw away. Our entire lifestyle has changed,” Cash’s mom Erin said, adding that ever since he found that straw, it lit a fire that has only grown. “I am extremely proud of Cash and everything he has already accomplished at such a young age. He’s done more in 11 years than I ever have.”
Cash explained his family has been highly supportive and helpful along his path, and help to make his ideas come to fruition.
“They encourage me along the way. My brother helps with my clean-ups and crafting for fundraising,” he explained. “My mom helps to organize events, publish my book and do emails, and my dad finds new places to do clean-ups and helps with the heavy stuff.
When they are not homeschooling, playing video games together online, or enjoying nature, they both spearhead local initiatives in their communities to reduce plastic use and trash. Ella is focused on asking businesses to convert to plastic alternatives for straws and utensils and to choose more recyclable materials.
“Plastic will never go away. It will be here when our grandchildren have grandchildren,” she said. “Companies are the biggest polluters, and I want to talk to them about what actions they can take to protect our planet.”
Cash stressed that plastics can only be recycled once or twice, and that’s only if the material makes it into recycling. He said simply picking three items that aren’t made of plastic — such as bags, straws, and bottles — are simple ways to make a big impact.
“There are so many companies making different options, but we need more,” he emphasized. “Like using or choosing aluminum-based products. There is no end to aluminum. You can use it over and over.”
Looking toward the future
If one thing is certain about Cash and Ella, it is that they are not waiting around for someone to tell them what to do. These wavemakers are focused on the future. They are taking actions today to conserve and protect the blue planet and are teaching others to do the same. From creating videos on their YouTube channel to collecting cans from restaurants and more, there is no limit to where they will go or what they will do for conservation.
“I want to travel the world, teach others, and help them feel connected to the Ocean,” Cash said. “Because if you are connected to the Ocean — if you love it and what lives in it — you’ll want to protect it.”
“This is my fun, and it becomes more fun with every new discovery,” he said, adding that anyone can be part of this important work. “Every little action counts. One person can make a positive change if they just stand up and get involved.”