Three years ago, during an eighth-grade field trip aboard the Lady Maryland, a vessel designed to teach children about the Chesapeake Bay, Rick Plenge could hardly believe what he saw in the water.
"Trash was floating by. There was a lot of oil in the water, and we saw fish with ripped off gills caused by the plastic things on six-pack throw-aways," said the 16-year-old Ellicott City resident.
"I didn't realize there was that much trash in the bay."
The experience motivated Rick to teach others about the environment. He organized projects, started a newsletter and instructed young children in the importance of conservation.
Last month the Mount Hebron High School junior was one of 12 national 4-H winners awarded a $1,500 Presidential Scholarship at the National 4-H Congress in Chicago for work in conserving natural resources.
The national award followed similar state honors -- Rick was among 17 Maryland winners.
His record book, which details all his projects during four years of membership in 4-H, was evaluated by members of the National 4-H Council and was recognized because of his involvement and leadership in the area of conservation.
In the fall of 1990, he embarked on a conservation project involving second-graders at Worthington Elementary School.
"I talked to the kids about recycling and transplanting tree seedlings. . . . I explained to them about mulch and soil. . . . We recycled two-liter bottles to be used as terrariums and then as watering vessels for the seedlings. . . . Later, they wrote letters and said it was the first time they had ever planted a tree," he said.
Planting trees is not new to Rick, who lives on three acres of land that include woods and a creek. His interest in conservation has been encouraged by his parents -- Richard, an engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in White Oak, and Nancy Plenge, a teacher at the St. Johns Parish Day School in Ellicott City. Both have long believed in the benefits of compost piles and recycling bins.
Family environmental projects have included making bird feeders out of liter bottles and building bird houses. And there's always the daily awareness of recycling newspapers, bottles, plastic foam, glass and tin cans.
"All of my life, my parents have always raked their leaves and put them in a pile; my father believes in brooms and rakes. Sometimes my arms kind of hurt, but I've always had to finish what I do," Rick said with a chuckle.
The conservation habits of the Plenge family became a curiosity for Rick's young friends in the days before MoRT and other recycling programs were widely accepted.
"The kids would ask me, 'Why do you have all that stuff sitting around?' " laughed Rick.
It's not surprising that Rick hopes to major in environmental engineering. He hopes to attend either Pennsylvania State University in UniversityPark, or Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va.
But for now, he is pursuing other interests, like playing on the Mount Hebron soccer team, skiing and snow-boarding while he continues his conservation projects.
Rick's own terrariums are made from two-liter bottles in which he plants tiny boxwood shrubs. When they outgrow the container, he transplants them in an outdoor 20-by-20-foot "garden of trees." So far, about 40 seedlings have taken root in the tree garden.
The idea for the terrariums resulted from some creative brainstorming between Rick and his mother. One of Rick'sfirst conservation projects involved helping his sister, Nicole -- now 18 years old and a freshman at Northwestern University -- with propagating plant cuttings for the 4-H club's annual bake and plant sale.
Because of his affinity for nature, he was able to lead a Let's Explore program for the younger members of his club, the Worthington 4-H Club. Through the program, members learned about soil, water and rocks, and studied the influence of wind, snow, rain and sun on the environment. They also built bird feeders and made kites.
Rick alsobegan a newsletter, Environmental Update, to spread information to other clubs. Using a computer to type in news bits gathered from environmental agencies, he researches, compiles and edits information for the quarterly newsletter, which he circulates to the county's 24 4-H clubs. Occasionally, he asks another 4-H member to contribute.
He is earnest about protecting the environment.
"I went to the dump yesterday and I saw all of these Christmas trees there. I can't believe that people would dump their trees there when the Patapsco State Park will make mulch out of them," he said.
"People should start looking at what they are throwing away. For example, you can throw leftover things from dinner, like apple peels, outside on the compost pile," he said. To make things easier, Rick suggests keeping a box next to the trash can for recyclables.
"We should stop using the landfills as throwaways and start using our brains to think about what we can keep," he said. "A lot of things can be melted down and re-used."