Nicolina Pappas of Rock Island has certainly come out of her shell.

The industrious 12-year-old, who’s a 7th grader at Bettendorf Middle School, has been busy the past few months criss-crossing the QC and nabbing proclamations from several cities in her quest to reduce the use of single-use plastic straws as well as other plastic items.

Nicolina earned the 2023 Rock Island Citizen of the Year award in the Youth category and last week appeared before the city councils in Davenport and Riverdale.

Nicolina Pappas received the Rock Island Citizen of the Year Youth award in August from Mayor Mike Thoms and Ald. Jenni Swanson.

“Just 12-years-old, Nicolina is already a conservation leader in the Quad Cities,” the Rock Island award read. Earlier this summer, the Rock Island City Council declared July as Skip the Plastic Month. Mayor Mike Thoms presented Nicolina with the official proclamation during a council meeting.

“I urge all residents, businesses, and visitors to join us in this effort to reduce plastic waste and protect our environment,” Thoms said then. “I commend the businesses that willingly participate in the Skip the Plastic campaign and take proactive steps toward reducing plastic waste.”

City proclamations that have been adopted at Nicolina’s urging to reduce plastic waste and protect the local environment.

Among other awards and honors Nicolina has won:

  • Sun Foundation’s Making Waves Awards for 2022.
  • Nahant Marsh Oberholtzer Award for Future Leadership.
  • LOVE Girls Magazine Little Love Award.
  • She was the youngest presenter at last year’s Youth Ocean Conservation Summit in Florida.
  • She was asked to be one of six kids from around the world chosen to serve on the Planeteer Alliance’s inaugural Wisdom Council (Planeteer Alliance is a part of the Captain Planet Foundation) and was recently asked to extend her term another year.

Nicolina started Nicolina’s Turtle Co. when she was 8 with the goal of reducing single-use plastic. Through her company, she sews straw pouches and sells them with reusable metal straws. She donates 100% of her profits to conservation groups and has raised more than $7,000 for local organizations such as Living Lands and Waters, Niabi Zoo, Nahant Marsh, and the QC Botanical Center.

Nicolina pictured with some of her straw pouches and a metal straw in her Rock Island home Sept. 13, 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Nicolina has presented in classrooms and at global summits, funded classroom outreach, and conducted clean-ups throughout the Quad Cities.

She was infatuated with animals and wildlife growing up and when she was 8, she saw a video of a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose, “which was very heartbreaking,” and inspired her to start the company, Nicolina said recently.

The straw issue was so important “because at the time, the turtle was my favorite animal and to see the effects of plastic waste, we as humans already make an impact on wildlife,” she said. “But you see how this can progress in like 50 years time.”

She started making the pouches when she was 8 and Nicolina estimates she has sewn about 700 of them, with a variety of designs. She had asked her mom to teach her to sew and help her design lined straw pouches with colorful snaps. She sells the pouches with a metal straw for $10, and with a straw and straw cleaner for $13.

She had seen that re-usable straws were being thrown into bags and backpacks, and decided that straw pouches would be a way to encourage people to use re-usable straws, while earning money to donate to conservation efforts.

Nicolina’s pet tortoise, Dimitri (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“It depends on what’s coming up, if there’s an event, like at Nahant Marsh,” Nicolina said of how she chooses to make donations.

Nicolina has a Russian pet tortoise, Dimitri, and went to grade school at Bettendorf’s Grant Wood Elementary.

“Skip the Plastic”

She wanted to get city proclamations for the “Skip the Plastic” campaign, to help spread the word.

“It’s not an ordinance, where they require businesses to do this thing,” Nicolina said. “It’s just a proclamation where they urge businesses to go with the campaign.”

Nicolina with Riverdale Mayor Anthony Heddlesten, when that city adopted a proclamation to “Skip the Plastic” at its Sept. 12, 2023 meeting.

Healthy Harvest Urban Farms, 1616 2nd Ave., Rock Island, has stopped using plastic straws, she said.

She made fliers with relevant facts, and has already convinced her school to go straw free and restaurants to only give straws upon request. She estimates her school alone was using 57,000 plastic straws each year.

Over five years, Nicolina hopes her campaign will spread well beyond the QC and outside Illinois and Iowa, since it’s a global issue.

She aims to reduce single-use plastics, as plastics never decompose; they break up into smaller pieces, eventually becoming micro-plastics.  “Every piece of plastic ever created is still in existence today in some form, polluting the environment,” she said.

Nicolina presenting a check to Nahant Marsh executive director Brian Ritter.

The Skip the Plastic campaign is an effort to encourage local restaurants to only give plastic straws and cutlery when customers request these items. She provides fliers for businesses to display, along with small window stickers, to show that extra effort is being made to help our community with the plastic crisis.

The campaign has been adopted by the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (a coalition of 105 mayors of towns along the Mississippi River spanning five states), Living Lands and Waters, the cities of Rock Island, Moline, Bettendorf, Davenport and Riverdale, the QC Chamber, and Quad Cities Earth Coalition have agreed to adopt or promote the campaign. 

The Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency will be creating a STEM curriculum built around Nicolina’s Skip the Plastic campaign, and it will be available throughout Iowa elementary schools, Nicolina’s mom, Lori Pappas said recently.

“The best part is that she is constantly involving friends — it’s a Nicolina’s Turtle Co. squad,” Lori said. “Her strength is her networking — she clams up in person, but will send e-mails to leaders and others for anything. Most conservation organizations in the QC know her. She’s a crazy humble kid with so many big ideas.”

She has sewn about 700 straw pouches so far and donated $7,000 to area conservation groups.

She’s funded school outreach by Nahant Marsh to all 5th graders in all nine of the elementaries in the Rock Island school district (and asked Nahant to add the effects of local plastic pollution into their Watersheds outreach), as well as additional outreach from Niabi Zoo,

She funded river cleanups through Living Lands and Waters; participated in downtown Rock Island cleanups as well as organized many of her own cleanups with friends and family.

“And she’s a straight-A student who is the kindest kid you’ll ever meet,” her mom said.

There is a Plastic Free July initiative of the Plastic Free Foundation that began in 2011. For more information on that campaign, click HERE.

“Skip the Plastic” stickers are available for display in restaurants, bars and coffee shops that are making successful efforts to minimize their use of single-use plastic. For stickers, Nicolina’s pouches or more information, visit the Nicolina’s Turtle Co. website HERE.