In this conversation with ‘the Conservation Kid,’ Cash Daniels, we learn more about what drives his passion to clean up the Tennessee River and lead his generation toward a brighter future.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Love knows no age.” The same goes for sustainability. Today’s kids worry about environmental problems — and they’re taking action to make a difference.
One shining example: Cash Daniels — a 14-year-old “River Hero” lovingly referred to by those who know him as “the conservation kid.” In his community near the Tennessee River, he leads the recycling of fishing line and aluminum cans, organizes local river cleanups, and teaches other kids about the importance of sustainability and circularity. On top of his local sustainability efforts, his work includes leading The Cleanup Kids — a river-cleanup organization he founded with his peer, Ella Grace, in 2019 — which collectively picked up 1 million pieces of waste in 2022 alone.
Here, Daniels explains what fuels his passion for leading his generation toward a brighter future. Learn more about his work to help the Tennessee River in the Rivers Are Life short film, “The Conservation Kid.”
How did you learn about the concept of circularity?
Cash Daniels: This concept took me a while to understand. I really got the idea when I discovered fish habitats made out of fishing line and other plastics. When I heard you could take something old and turn it into something completely new with no waste, that was a "lightbulb moment" for me. I knew there were so many aluminum cans in my community going to the landfill. This was something I could take, recycle, get paid for, and turn into something brand new. Nothing is wasted, and I can keep making this money indefinitely. Now, my entire system is a closed-loop system, which is awesome!
Can you describe a time you looked at a larger challenge and figured out a local way to make a difference?
CD: More than 300,000 birds are entangled in fishing line annually and improperly discarded fishing gear is the number-one killer of sea turtles yearly.
To address this, I work with Tennessee State Parks to place fishing line bins along our waterways to reduce and prevent wildlife entanglement; this collected fishing line is then melted down and made into fish habitats. Now, something that could potentially harm our freshwater ecosystems and wildlife is giving back to improve it. This is a global issue, but I figured I could at least make our rivers healthier while preventing this trash from flowing downstream into larger rivers and, eventually, our ocean.
What are your primary goals when you go to schools to teach other kids about conservation?
CD: My main goal is just to inspire kids to make a difference in their communities. That may be just their home, the neighborhood or their school. I talk about making a difference in your own way. Every kid has different interests, and that's what’s so fun. Some kids want to save birds, others want to save bees, some want to save snakes. I personally love sharks. We can all agree we need a healthy planet to sustain life. I also want to make kids aware that our rivers are often overlooked and that we can no longer take them for granted.
I also love reading my book, One Small Piece, to other kids so they can not only hear about another kid making a difference but also see that they don't have to do what I do. They can write books, start a podcast or speak with government officials. There are so many ways we can all use our strengths to create change in different ways.
Do you think many other kids your age want to make a difference for the planet?
CD: I know other kids care and are making a difference. The Cleanup Kids has worked with kids in four different countries — educating over 10,000 kids so far. Inspiring the next generation and making them aware of the fact we can create change and that our voices matter is one of my favorite parts of what I do.
How do they react to hearing about your work and its impact on the community?
CD: Each time I talk to other kids, they get excited to see another kid doing conservation work. They don't want to be told what to do without reasons. Kids want to be believed in and seen as a valuable part of the community. When they see one of their peers creating big change and doing exciting things, they get excited and want to help. It's so much fun to do cleanups and other things with friends. It's a great way to get outside and enjoy our natural world.
What would you say to kids who want to start helping the environment today? What can they do to have an impact on their communities?
CD: My advice is to start small. If we all made small changes in our daily lives, it would create a ripple effect that could change the world so much faster. A recent study showed that if every person today picked up 152 pieces of trash, our country would be litter free.
The possibilities are endless when it comes to making an impact. I would say, find your passion and go with it. You can't protect what you don't love; so, find something you love that's worth saving — whether it's water, koalas, sharks, trees, etc. You have an impact every single day — only you get to decide whether it's good or bad.
Kids may be a small part of the population, but we are 100% of the future. We can't wait for "someone" to do something about our environment — we are all "someone," and we can all do something to make a difference. If we all just left places better than we found them, our planet would be so much better off.
What kind of support do you think your generation and the ones who come after you need to help build a more sustainable future?
CD: I think kids just need to be seen and heard. We may not have all the answers; but adults don't, either. Sometimes we see things in a totally different way because our experience with the world is different. Kids may appreciate things differently than adults. On cleanups, I have been asked by adults if I am being punished because I am outside picking up trash. Adults think it's weird sometimes that I do it for fun or because it's my passion.
Sometimes adults are so busy with life and bills, they forget to appreciate the world we live in. Kids are inventive and may have ideas to address issues that adults don't see.
Do you have any conservation heroes or role models?
CD: Yes! I have always loved the Irwins. Steve Irwin is one of my favorite conservationists. His family is carrying on his legacy and still making a huge difference for wildlife around the globe, which is so cool!
I also like Forrest Galante, who is the world’s leading wildlife biologist when it comes to studying extinct animals. He has rediscovered eight species that were thought to be extinct!
And I really look up to my friend and mentor Jim Abernethy. He is an amazing photographer, cinematographer and dive operator. Jim has been one of my biggest inspirations to save wildlife, and he teaches me new things all the time.
Do you want to continue doing this type of work as an adult?
CD: I definitely want to keep working in conservation and focusing on water. With less than three percent of the Earth's water supply being freshwater and two percent of that being locked underground or in ice caps, freshwater is a vital resource that must be protected. We cannot live and flourish without it; and we can no longer take it for granted as an unlimited resource. Every living being is directly affected by our rivers and oceans. We can no longer ignore the importance of water on the globe.
Learn more about other River Heroes from Rivers Are Life here.