Students take the lead to fight ocean plastic pollution

Young ocean advocates in the Monterey Bay region are behind two recent efforts to reduce single-use plastic waste. One is a vision for a month without straws. The other is a ban on plastic straws and utensils in the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

If we take a cue from kids like these, the ocean’s future looks bright.

In April 2018, Carmel food businesses will no longer be permitted to offer plastic straws, cutlery, coffee lids or containers that can’t be recycled or composted. Photo courtesy Our Seas Our Future

Plastic pollution threatens the health of marine wildlife like fish, turtles and seabirds, which often become entangled in plastic trash or eat it by mistake. And the problem is growing quickly: Since people started making plastic in the 1950s, only 9 percent has been recycled, and another 12 percent has been incinerated. The rest, over 4 billion metric tons, has ended up in landfills or in the natural environment—including the ocean.

On October 3, the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea banned its restaurants and food vendors from providing plastic straws and utensils. The idea for the ban stemmed from a group of Carmel River School students, encouraged by fifth grade teacher Niccole Tiffany, who were concerned about plastic pollution in the ocean. The kids took action, attending a City Council meeting and requesting a law banning single-use plastics in the city’s restaurants. One of the students who spoke during the public comment period was Shayla Dutta, age 10.

“I stand for this ban,” she said, “because I stand for the environment.”

Under Carmel’s new ordinance, coffee cup lids will have to be compostable (like these) or recyclable.

Unanimous support

Thanks to those students’ efforts—and those of city officials, restaurant owners and environmental advocacy groups, including the Aquarium—the Carmel City Council unanimously approved the ban. Starting January 1, 2018, single-use plastic straws and utensils will be provided at Carmel restaurants by request only, and in April these products must be replaced with compostable and/or biodegradable alternatives.

“This really brings tears to my eyes,”Carmel Mayor Steve Dallas said of the students’ passion and conviction,. “It’s this next generation that we’re all up here to serve. It’s really the most important part of being mayor.”

Students from Carmel River School celebrated passage of the ban on single-use plastics in a parade through the streets of the city.

The students celebrated victory as a part of a parade through the city, and now hope to share their story with an international audience, at the Algalita Plastic Ocean Pollution Summit next year. (They’ve even created Star Wars-themed video documenting their success.)

Plastic straws and utensils aren’t considered recyclable in Carmel. City officials hope the ban will divert a significant volume of plastic waste from being sent to the landfill, or worse—entering the ocean as plastic pollution.

“The City of Carmel has been a leader in reducing pollution of our landscape and ocean,” says Barbara Meister, the Aquarium’s director of public affairs. “We applaud Carmel for being the first city in Monterey County to eliminate non-compostable plastic straws and utensils. This accelerates the shift to reusable and compostable alternatives.”

“We hope other cities follow Carmel’s lead,” she added.

#NoStrawNovember gains traction

Carmel’s ban isn’t the only student-led effort to reduce plastic pollution. San Benito High School junior Shelby O’Neil, a Monterey Bay Aquarium Teen Conservation Leader and founder of the Jr Ocean Guardians, is the driving force behind #NoStrawNovember—an initiative to raise awareness of the problem and inspire people to skip plastic straws, a common source of plastic pollution on beaches and in the ocean.

“Usually people don’t use plastic straws at home,” she explains, “I certainly don’t have a bunch of plastic straws lying around to use when I drink my water. So why do we need straws when we go out to eat?”

Shelby’s No Straw November campaign encourages companies and individuals to make a pledge to reduce their straw consumption during the month of November, starting this year. Jr Ocean Guardians has received more than 1,000 No Straw November pledges, across the United States and from as far away as Okinawa. Several jurisdictions on California’s Central Coast have signed on, too, including Monterey and San Benito counties, and the cities of Pacific Grove and Monterey. Several cities are considering ordinances Carmel’s, which would permanently ban certain non-compostable, single-use plastic items.

Teen Conservation Leader Shelby O’Neil, founder of Jr Ocean Guardians, won California Coastal Commission backing for #NoStrawNovember.

A larger vision

Beyond reaching out to individual jurisdictions, Shelby has a bigger vision. In September, she urged the California Coastal Commission to endorse No Straw November, a suggestion the commission embraced. In October, commissioners voted unanimously to support her proposal. If a bill is passed by the Legislature, California would observe its first No Straw November in 2018.

In the meantime, Shelby is pursuing the campaign as her Girl Scout Gold Award project, and is getting support from corporate partners, colleges and other communities around the country. Already, Costco has stopped offering plastic coffee stirrers for sale online; and Farmer Brothers Coffee will phase out plastic stirrers during 2018. Students at Stevenson School in Carmel have joined the movement.

Shelby also brought her message to the Dreamforce 2017 session on “The Oceans are Everyone’s Business.”

Students at Stevenson School in Carmel have joined the movement.

“It’s inspiring to see young people so committed to reducing plastic waste into our environment, which we know is so devastating to our ocean’s health,” said Jack Ainsworth, executive director of the Coastal Commission. “If you ever need a job in the future,” he told Shelby, “we’re looking for some good people.”

Shelby says she founded Jr Ocean Guardians in order to give empower young kids. “I want them to feel like they can change something and can have an impact,” she says. “Even small actions add up. And when they’re older, hopefully they can take more action like voting people into office who will take care of the environment.”

By taking policy action to reduce the amount of plastic we use, young activists like Shelby and the Carmel River School students are helping to stem the flow of plastic pollution into the sea. We’re cheering on these young ocean conservationists, and others, as they create the change they want to see in the world.

—Erin Eastwood

Learn more about the Aquarium’s work to reduce ocean plastic pollution at

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