Before Cash Daniels was born, his parents didn't recycle.
"We were not environmentally friendly. We didn't know about that stuff," says his mother, Erin Daniels.
Now, at age 10, Cash has not only converted his family into conservationists, but he is helping to educate his community on the perils of pollution through organized river cleanups and weekly YouTube videos in which he collaborates with his best friend Ella to inspire other children to stand up for the planet.
His resume is impressive, and not just for a fifth-grader.
At age 8, Cash founded The Conservation Kid to sell art pieces and other items to raise money for anti-whaling organizations. At age 9, he wrote and illustrated "One Small Piece," a book about ocean pollution and how children can get involved in cleanups. In both 2019 and 2020, Cash was named Youth Conservationist of the Year by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation after removing more than 5,000 pounds of trash from the Tennessee River.
His mom says his interest in aquatic conservation began at a young age.
"I remember when he was around 2, we'd go to the Aquarium and easily spend eight hours there. He was a totally different kid around water," she says.
At home, Cash immersed himself in science documentaries.
"He's never been a kid to watch cartoons. Sometimes I wonder what normal 10-year-olds are like," says Erin. "But mostly I just sit back in awe."
Here, in his own words, Cash talks about his passion for clean water and his plans for the future.
> We used to go to Myrtle Beach once a year and I fell in love with the ocean. I learned about pollution because one day I found straws on the beach. I was confused why there was so much trash on the beach. You may not see it at first, but once you learn about [litter], you see it everywhere.
> I picked up all the trash on the beach, and then when I got home I wondered what I could do. I remembered all rivers lead to the ocean.
> My mom found out about the [adopt-a-river mile program] and was like, 'Hey, do you want to do this?' [At age 8,] I was the youngest person in the state to adopt a river mile.
> At first I thought I owned [that mile], but my mom said I don't really. I just get to go and clean up there whenever I want and I don't have to ask [the authorities]. My mile is right at Harrison Bay State Park.
> We did cleanups once a month before coronavirus hit. We found 700 water bottles in one cleanup. We found a lot of shoes and a Batman toy.
> Microplastic comes from bigger pieces of plastics that break down over time. The Tennessee River is the most polluted in microplastics than any other rivers that have been tested in the world. Small fish eat [microplastics], bigger fish eat those, and those [plastic] chemicals go up to the food chain.
> My best friend in the whole world lives in Canada. Her name is Ella. She's 10 and does exactly what I do. She does a lot of shark conservation. We met on Instagram and became really good friends. The first time we met was in 2019 during Ocean Heroes Bootcamp (a global gathering of youth activists committed to ending plastic ocean pollution). We've met three times but I wish it was more. We talk on the computer like 24/7. Sometimes we play Minecraft or other games.
> My favorite ocean animal is the whale shark. It's the biggest fish in the entire ocean, but it eats krill, which is the smallest thing in the ocean.
> I love every living thing on the planet, but I love endangered animals more — like the vaquita. It is a type of porpoise that's critically endangered. There are less than 10 in the world and you can't keep them in captivity. [In Tennessee,] we have the [endangered] hellbender. It's like a salamander that's flat and looks like a rock.
> Everyone should recycle, don't litter, and love the environment. Clean water provides balance for the world.
> I have a whole list of what I want to do when I grow up. I want to be an oceanographer, a marine biologist , an underwater archaeologist, a professional scuba diver. My plan is to work my list.