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To Reduce Ocean Pollution, Awareness Is the Key

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A beach with lots of trash on the sand.

After Starbucks announced its straw ban, debate and discussion rightfully swarmed the internet. Environmental activists celebrated a victory while the disabled community criticized the ban for its ableist slant.

Consumers everywhere formulated and voiced their opinions on social media. In the midst of the endless opinions, though, it is clear that action is required to address widespread plastic pollution.

Plastic, particularly single-use plastic, seems to be one of the most insidious pollutants that exist. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, plastic does not disappear, especially in the ocean. Instead, it degrades into small particles, referred to as microplastics, that affect not only the immediate wildlife but also trickle into our food and water.

Experts estimate the lifespan of plastic in landfills to range somewhere between 500 to 1000 years, meaning that in either case, plastic remains in our environment for an extremely long time. Meanwhile, only 9% of all plastic is recycled, leaving the vast majority to accumulate in landfills and the ocean.

A smaller victory like banning straws could pave the way for more responsible plastic use and recycling. Campaigns urging consumers to forego straw use, such as #StopSucking, has gained traction, leading to grassroots efforts of eliminating plastic straws.

Environmental activist Saanya Bhargava is a rising high school senior who started her own strawless movement in Austin, Texas, through impact.gravitas, a youth organization she founded to decrease ocean plastic pollution.

Saanya Bhargava wearing a light blue long sleeved shirt with a brown belt and white slacks standing in a multi-lighted room with one of her hands raised with her finger pointed up while smiling.

Source: Saanya Bhargava

“Banning plastic straws is just one part, but it’s a step in the right direction. One of the biggest alternatives [to plastic straws] is paper. I work very closely with a company who is making biodegradable straws to be catered directly to restaurants,” she said.

“When I heard [of Starbucks’ straw ban], I was ecstatic,” she recalled. “I was shocked because Starbucks is such a huge company. For them to do that, it really spread awareness about the issue.”

Starbucks Coffee logo on a window in front of a building.

Source: Starbucks

Bhargava’s passion for ending ocean plastic pollution began in her freshman year of high school. She wrote a research paper on the topic and submitted it to the Google Science Fair and MIT Inspire. Though her paper was not selected to win, her newfound interest resulted in an internship with Dell.

At Dell, she worked on the project of incorporating ocean plastic into Dell’s packaging. Following her internship, she spoke at a panel at South by Southwest and founded impact.gravitas. Most recently, she gave a TED talk on single-use plastics and ocean pollution.

Starbucks’ initiative to ban plastic straws resonates with Bhargava’s consistent message of the need to ignite awareness. She believes that as long as people are supplied with the necessary information, they can contribute to the movement.

“It’s very much a culture that makes it so that plastic is everywhere, but it only takes one person to make the switch [to sustainable alternatives] to decrease the amount of plastic that they use,” she notes.

“That’s why spreading awareness is so huge for me on my social media platforms and with the organization. As more people become aware, they can start cutting down on the plastic they use.”

When asked about future direction, Bhargava focused on the importance of alternatives to plastic. For the special needs community who needs straws to drink their beverages, she acknowledged and respected their concern. She suggested alternative materials like paper or bamboo, which are better for the environment.

“I really want to see a culture where people bring their own cups to Starbucks. I want to see a culture where people always bring their own grocery bags,” Bhargava dreams. “It just takes a long time for restaurants and companies to make the switch because of how cheap and durable plastic is, but [Starbucks’ straw ban] is a great sign of progress.”

By: Janice Lee

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