A Girl Scout is the catalyst behind budding 'just say no' to plastic straws campaign
By JULIE MINDA
Dignity Health has removed plastic straws and plastic stirrers from the cafeterias in all 39 of its hospitals. The San Francisco-based system estimates the move will eliminate the use of about 4 million single-use plastic straws and stirrers annually.
Shelby O'Neil promotes the first "No Straw November" — a campaign to reduce plastic straw use — at the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. Dreamforce is a presentation of the Salesforce company. O'Neil's activism has inspired Dignity Health and others to significantly reduce use of single-use plastic items.
The system made the change late last year in response to concerns raised by a central California high school student. After viewing a Dignity Health commercial featuring a boy blowing out his birthday candles with a straw, Shelby O'Neil emailed Dignity Health President and Chief Executive Lloyd Dean, alerting him to environmental concerns related to plastic straws and urging the health system to consider reducing their use.
Girl Scout Shelby O'Neil, center, is spearheading a campaign to reduce plastic waste, much of which ends up in the oceans where it threatens aquatic life. Shelby is shown here with a Girl Scout troop that pitched in to pick up trash on a California beach.
O'Neil of San Juan Bautista, Calif., is a junior in high school. Her lifelong love of the outdoors and of marine life inspired her to focus her capstone Girl Scout project on protecting the ocean and its inhabitants. Through the Junior Ocean Guardians nonprofit she founded about a year ago, she has been speaking to schoolchildren about how to protect ocean creatures; blogging about ocean pollution; organizing campaigns to eliminate or ban single-use plastic items; appealing to organizations directly to stop using these items; hosting beach cleanups; and meeting with public officials about cutting plastic waste.
Last year, she organized "No Straw November," a citywide initiative in Monterey, Calif., encouraging restaurants to stop automatically distributing straws to their customers, and asking businesses and residents to cut plastic straw use. O'Neil reports on her website that there were more than 9,000 online pledges of participation and nearly 20,000 reported refusals of plastic straws.
Nonbiodegradable plastics including straws and stirrers can endanger marine life, particularly sea turtles. Research published in March in the journal Scientific Reports said the mass of detritus in the Pacific Ocean known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains an estimated 79,000 tons of plastic. The New York Times reported that plastic made up the bulk of the diet of sea turtles caught near the patch.
Sr. Mary Ellen Leciejewski, OP, is vice president of corporate responsibility for Dignity Health. She said she was amazed at how quickly Dean responded to O'Neil's call to reduce the use of plastic stirrers and straws. "He was inspired by Shelby" and immediately got together a multi-department committee to look at the idea. Within a month, the cafeterias had removed all plastic straws and stirrers. Environmentally friendly paper straws are available upon request in the cafeterias now, and the cafeterias have replaced the plastic stirrers with biodegradable wooden ones.
A poster currently on display in Dignity Health cafeterias explains the system's no plastic straw policy to patrons.
The cafeterias display posters explaining the decision. The hospitals also are running articles in their newsletters alerting readers to the change and the reasoning behind it.
By eliminating straws in its cafeterias, Dignity Health has cut its use of plastic straws roughly in half. Sr. Leciejewski said the facilities continue to put flexible plastic straws on patient food trays. There is sometimes a therapeutic reason for straw use. For instance, inpatients often are reclining in a bed and can't conveniently drink liquids without a straw. Some have conditions that make drinking difficult or hazardous without a straw. Dignity Health is exploring replacing the plastic straws on patient trays with straws made of more environmentally friendly materials. It also is investigating green alternatives to plastic utensils in use at its hospitals.
Dignity Health says Americans use about 500 million plastic straws daily. An article on the Martha Stewart website, honoring O'Neil as a "Change Maker," says many straws are too small to be recycled with other plastics. Most end up in landfills and many float out into the ocean after being discarded as litter or swept up in storm water.
According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, about 1,800 restaurants, organizations and schools worldwide have eliminated the use of plastic straws or made them only available upon request.
Sr. Leciejewski said cafeteria patrons are surprised when they learn the plastic straws are not available, but once people understand the ecological foundation for making the change, most are on board. She noted that cities and restaurants that have eliminated plastic straws have found only a small percentage of patrons ask for straws when they are not provided automatically.
Sr. Leciejewski said she believes the decision to eliminate straws is reverberating to good effect in the communities Dignity Health serves. "I think people take it to heart" when they learn why the hospital cafeterias don't offer plastic straws. "I think many people stop using straws elsewhere." And the hope is their friends and family will follow suit, she said.
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