Stu­dents’ last straw is the start of some­thing big

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - THERESA VAR­GAS theresa.var­[email protected]­post.com

They don’t know yet what they will say or whether they will use any data to back up their points. But some­day soon, three teenage girls will stand in front of an ad­min­is­tra­tor at their D.C. school and make an im­por­tant re­quest:

Can some­one please get rid of the uten­sil dis­pensers in the cafe­te­ria that some­times spit out more than one plas­tic fork or spoon at a time?

The ex­tra uten­sils usu­ally end up on the floor, un­used be­fore they are tossed in the garbage, and that waste con­cerns the girls.

That is one rea­son for their re­quest.

The other is that, at 13, they al­ready know this: Big re­sults can come of small steps.

“We thought it would be eas­ier to con­vince big­ger or­ga­ni­za­tions to share our views if we could first con­vince our school,” Ava Inskeep said.

Ava and class­mates Sabine Thomas and Claire MacQueen are not just any teenage girls. They are teenage girls who spend a lot of time look­ing at the world around them and who have taken on an am­bi­tious goal. They don’t just want to change how their school uses plas­tic. They also want to change how you and I do.

The three eighth-graders are be­hind the In­sta­gram ac­count “Straw Free DC.”

Walk into many D.C. restau­rants right now and you might not know a sin­gle-use plas­tic straw ban went into ef­fect this month. You can eas­ily find straws. They are where they’ve al­ways been, right there next to the plas­tic stir­rers and plas­tics uten­sils, some­times wrapped in plas­tic.

But come July, that will prob­a­bly change. That month, city of­fi­cials plan to start hand­ing out fines to restau­rants and busi­nesses that still of­fer straws, which means soon we will see them dis­ap­pear and have to face our own plas­tic-use habits. The dis­ap­pear­ance of straws else­where has al­ready caused grum­bles from crit­ics who ar­gue that straws make up only a small per­cent­age of our over­all waste and out­rage from con­sumers who don’t want to lose that con­ve­nience. In Flor­ida, a man at­tacked a McDon­ald’s em­ployee af­ter he was told there were no straws.

Peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties have also made strong ar­gu­ments against straw bans, point­ing out the need for ex­cep­tions, be­cause not ev­ery­one can drink straight from cups or use al­ter­na­tive types of straws.

The three teenagers have heard all those ar­gu­ments.

They went through each when I sat down with them on a re­cent morn­ing at Wash­ing­ton In­ter­na­tional School. As peo­ple in this re­gion reeval­u­ate their re­la­tion­ship with plas­tic — and we all should — I reached out to the teenagers be­cause I think their per­spec­tive is one worth our at­ten­tion. They have, af­ter all, spent more time think­ing about the straw ban than many adults.

When we met, they spoke as though they had been fight­ing the is­sue for years and not months. They talked about their worries and cited sta­tis­tics. They de­scribed their ef­forts to change their own habits and those of their par­ents. They dis­cussed what they wished more adults un­der­stood: Straw bans are about so much more than straws.

“Straws are a sym­bol,” MacQueen said.

“It’s a start,” Inskeep said. “If we could just get rid of that, there’s hope we could get rid of more.”

“It will show peo­ple it’s pos­si­ble and it’s not that dif­fi­cult,” Thomas said.

On their In­sta­gram ac­count, which the teenagers cre­ated be­fore the city’s ban went into ef­fect, most of the posts ad­dress the pub­lic’s broader over­re­liance on plas­tic.

One post fea­tures a picture of an egg­plant wrapped in plas­tic with the ques­tion, “Is this re­ally nec­es­sary”?

An­other shows a photo of two hard-boiled eggs in a plas­tic cup with a $1.99 price tag. The cap­tion reads, “Good thing this store in New York wrapped these foods in plas­tic, since na­ture doesn’t pro­vide any type of outer cov­er­ing on them at all!”

Two of the girls, Sabine and Claire, said they first started think­ing about the en­vi­ron­ment when they were 10 years old. They had cho­sen to study global warm­ing for a class project and were struck by what they learned. One fact that stuck with them: By 2050, there will be more plas­tic than fish in the oceans.

“That’s when we started to care more,” Sabine said. “But we didn’t do any­thing be­cause we were in fifth grade.”

Then last year, Claire moved to Tamil Nadu, In­dia, for sev­eral months with her fam­ily. Liv­ing in the United States, she had taken for granted that garbage is whisked away, out of sight, she said. There, she saw it over­flow­ing on the streets.

“Even though they ad­ver­tised it as a place that was very peace­ful and a great tourist desti­na­tion, there was trash ev­ery­where,” she said. “It was sad to see. I think that’s when it re­ally hit me.”

I told her I un­der­stood. I bought my fam­ily our first non­plas­tic straws four years ago while we were liv­ing tem­po­rar­ily in In­done­sia. Our home was a few blocks from a beach that even on good days brought tons of plas­tic bot­tles and wrap­pers to the shore.

One stretch of beach was so badly lit­tered that my 3-year-old who loved to walk there would ask, “Can we go to the dirty beach?”

Af­ter her time in In­dia, Claire at­tended the Ocean He­roes Boot­camp, a mul­ti­day event or­ga­nized by the Lonely Whale and Cap­tain Planet Foun­da­tion that en­cour­ages young peo­ple to cre­ate their own cam­paigns against plas­tic pol­lu­tion. Sabine par­tic­i­pated along­side her, and later, with Ava, they cre­ated the In­sta­gram ac­count.

I asked all three of the teenagers what their hopes were go­ing for­ward.

“To see a world with a lot less plas­tic,” Claire said.

“I hope one day I can walk down the street and there’s no plas­tic bags in the trees and trash in the gut­ters,” Ava said.

“I’m just hop­ing ev­ery­one can re­al­ize what an is­sue this is and take ac­tion as well,” Sabine said. “That it won’t just be one per­son, that it’ll be ev­ery­one car­ing.”

As for the pitch they plan to make to school ad­min­is­tra­tors about the uten­sil dis­pensers, a good sign came on Mon­day that it will fall on re­cep­tive ears.

A group of sixth-grade girls at the pri­vate school had asked months ago for an al­ter­na­tive to the plas­tic wa­ter bot­tles handed out with younger stu­dents’ lunches. When they re­turned from win­ter break, they got their an­swer.

There, in the cafe­te­ria, was a new wa­ter dis­penser.

Theresa Var­gas

STRAW FREE DC/IN­STA­GRAM

THERESA VAR­GAS/ THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: “Straw Free DC” high­lights the pub­lic’s over­re­liance on plas­tic. ABOVE: From left, eighth-graders Sabine Thomas, Claire MacQueen and Ava Inskeep, all 13, are be­hind the cam­paign.

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