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Did you know that in the U.S. we use about 500 million straws per day? Many of these straws — too small to be recycled with other plastics —will head straight to landfills and eventually float into our oceans. And while using a single straw may not seem like it adds up to much, one California teen is convinced otherwise; and she doesn’t plan on waiting around to find out.
“To a lot of people, trash can often feel like ‘out of sight, out of mind’,” 17-year-old Shelby O’Neil tells us. “But know that something like your straw can enter into our ecosystem. And one day, maybe in five years, you could even end up eating it.”
That’s why O’Neil set out to host a city-wide No Straw November campaign in Monterey, California last fall. The campaign encouraged local business and residents to refuse single-use plastic straws or seek other sustainable options, for one month. Local restaurants were encouraged to refrain from automatically handing out straws to diners, while diners were encouraged to refuse them. The campaign also raised awareness on sustainable options to single-use plastic, like paper straws or reusable stainless steel straws.
"I started this campaign to raise both social and personal awareness on issues of single-use plastic pollution," O'Neil says. "Try keeping track of how many straws you are offered or refused in a day. This could help each of us realize how much single-use plastic we use in a one month or a year.”
O’Neil spearheaded the campaign idea with Junior Ocean Guardians, a group she founded for her 2017 Girl Scout of American Gold Award Project. With a team of ambassadors, O’Neil is dedicated spreading the message of sustainability from educating younger children on the environment and hosting beach clean-ups, to raising awareness on the danger of single-use plastics, like straws, and offering simple ways we can all live more sustainably.
“To me, sustainable living means giving the earth a well-deserved break!” says the San Juan native. Growing up in California, O’Neil spent a lot of her childhood outdoors, learning early on that nature was a place that needed to be treated kindly. These days — when she’s not busy advocating or doing homework, of course! — O’Neil loves to be out kayaking and hiking. “I’ve always viewed the environment as a special place we should all protect.”
In middle school, she jumped at the chance to join a summer camp at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a place O’Neil fondly frequented as a kid. Then, just shy of her freshman year in high school, she decided to continue on to the aquarium’s prestigious Teen Conservation Leader program (with only 50 spots available for over 250 applications) — and was one of its youngest members.
“A lot of people didn’t understand why I wanted to volunteer when I could spend my time getting a job and getting paid,” she admits. “But I got to work behind the scenes at one of the best aquariums in the world. I was out on the floor, educating guests, spreading the conservation message, and helping out kids who came to visit. I even helped create the teen social media program at the aquarium. It was a lot of fun!”
After volunteering at the aquarium for several years, O’Neil knew she wanted ocean conservation to be the focus of her Girl Scout of America Gold Award Project, an award she says not many girls actually end up completing. “Once you get older, being in Girl Scouts can be seen as ‘uncool’. People think we just sell cookies! But I always knew I wanted to get my Gold Award. It’s the highest award, equivalent to an Eagle Scout,” she says. And as a Girl Scout for over 10 years, O’Neil declares: “Once I start something I want to finish it. Plus, nobody else I knew had one so I thought, ‘why couldn’t I be that one person?’”
Her answer: the Junior Ocean Guardians. Since launching the project last spring, O’Neil and her team have not only hosted beach clean-ups and the No Straw November campaign — with support from the California Coastal Commission and the Leonardo Dicaprio Foundation — but she’s also spoken at Dreamforce 2017 in San Francisco where she got to witness her role model, Michelle Obama, speak too. (“I wanted to break down and cry, I was seriously fan-girling on the inside!”)
She’s spread her message and mission to schools and other Girl Scout troops in her area, and encouraged them to continue sharing the word. Recently, O’Neil also partnered with Delta Airlines as part of their inaugural Teen Council where she flew out to the headquarters to promote her No-Straw campaign. And, determined to turn her campaign into official state legislation, O’Neil is currently working with Senator Monning and Governor Brown in hopes that 2018 will be the year California officially bans plastic straws.
As the first state to ban plastic bags, California joins a growing list of cities both nationwide and worldwide that have nixed many single-use plastic items, from straws and cups to bags and utensils. "All choices we make have an impact on the earth,” says O’Neil, “So why not choose one that benefits the environment? Small changes can really add up."