Caoilin Krauthaus and Lila Mankad have been playing at Woodland Park for as long as they can remember.
The 15-year-old high school students would prefer to forget some of the things they’ve seen at the wooded, urban sanctuary that surrounds part of Little White Oak Bayou.
When they were in fourth grade at Travis Elementary, they went to the park for Krauthaus’ ninth birthday and noticed plastic water bottles and Styrofoam had piled up along the shores of the bayou. There also were plastic bags embedded in the ground and hanging from trees.
“Most sickening to us was the plastic bags. They were packed in the ground and spongy when you walked on them,” Mankad said. “No matter how many times we tried to pick them up, it kept coming back.”
Krauthaus and Mankad started an online petition that year, in 2016, that asked Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston City Council to ban single-use plastic bags, like the ones used at grocery stores, or implement a fee associated with their use. And while they have not been successful in that endeavor – at least partly because of a Texas Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that prevents municipalities in the state from enforcing bans on plastic bags – they have continued to advocate for the environment.
The young Woodland Heights residents traveled to the state capitol in Austin and spoke about the issue during the Texas Legislature session in 2017, and they also have shared their message with fellow students at other schools. And they started a business called Bag Free Bayous a couple years ago in which they sell reusable bags in an attempt to reduce the reliance on plastics.
For their ongoing efforts, Krauthaus and Mankad are set to receive special recognition from Houston’s Bayou Preservation Association during its Terry Hershey Bayou Stewardship Awards event, which will be held virtually on July 14.
Also receiving special recognition will be the Houston Parks Board, for its Bayou Greenways 2020 project, while the primary award recipients will be Jill Boullion of the Bayou Land Conservancy and Terri Thomas, a longtime supporter of Houston bayous and the environment.
"At a very young age, these young ladies became stewards of the bayou," said Robert Rayburn, a member of the board of directors for the Bayou Preservation Association. "They recognized, 'We are destroying our environment, the very thing that causes us pleasure and peace and reduces our mental anguish.' ... The very passion these young ladies have is exactly why they are being recognized."
Mankad said she and her good friend have sold more than 300 reusable bags through Bag Free Bayous, which has a website, bagfreebayous.org. The bags are made from upcycled banners, which Krauthaus’ parents help collect through their graphic design business, Core Design Studio.
The reusable bags are handmade by an Afghan refugee who Krauthaus and Mankad met through The Community Cloth, a microenterprise that empowers refugee women in Houston. Mankad said the refugee, Khatera, keeps two-thirds of the proceeds from bag sales. They cost $30 each.
“She’s an amazing person,” Mankad said.
Krauthaus and Mankad don’t necessarily see themselves as the American versions of Greta Thunberg, the teenage environmental activist from Sweden, because they have other interests. Krauthaus, who attends Carnegie Vanguard High School, said she is into art, design and technology. Mankad, who goes to Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, likes to write poetry and wants to pursue a career in science, possibly as a marine biologist.
But they are passionate about protecting the environment.
“Climate change is such a big issue,” Krauthaus said. “I think this issue needs to be treated more as like an emergency.”
Both Krauthaus and Mankad said it’s been frustrating to hit some roadblocks with their efforts, such as not succeeding in their quest to have single-use plastic bags banned in their hometown. But they have not given up on that objective, with the online petition still active on change.org.
It has nearly 4,400 signatures, which have accumulated since 2016. And it serves as a reminder of their unfettered passion about the issue.
When the petition first launched, Mankad said she stayed up late and watched the number of signatures surpass the 100 mark. During the first month, that number had ballooned to about 500.
“We kind of realized from that that the world is really hungry to hear from young voices who want a change,” Mankad said. “It really kind of sparked the whole thing.”