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San Benito
April 14, 2024

Q&A: Teen convinces Alaska Airlines, Dignity to rid plastic straws

San Benito High School junior Shelby O’Neil is making waves as an eco-activist.

The 17-year-old recently convinced two major companies, Alaska Airlines and Dignity Health, to halt use of single-use plastic straws and stir sticks. Between the two companies, it is expected to result in more than 25 million fewer straws and sticks used.

O’Neil is founder of Jr Ocean Guardians, which she formed as part of her 2017 Girl Scout Gold Award project. She is active at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where she’s a Teen Conservation Leader and where she became inspired to get involved in ocean conservation.

O’Neil also has pushed for a State Senate resolution, introduced by State Sen. Bill Monning in late April, calling for No Straw November. Co-sponsored by Jr Ocean Guardians and the aquarium, it would discourage use of the single-use plastic straws for the month.

The ambitious teenager recently answered these email questions from San Benito Live about her efforts.

What inspired you to form Junior Ocean Guardians as part of your Girl Scout of America Gold Award Project, and how did No Straw November come about?

I formed Jr Ocean Guardians as my 2017 Girl Scout Gold Award project to help teach kids on how they can help and hurt this planet. I’ve created an activity book in both English and Spanish to make learning fun. While visiting a class, I realized that kids really like taking challenges and that led me to create a challenge that people of all ages could take, and the cost would be free. This was when I came up with my “No Straw November” Initiative. It’s pretty self-explanatory: just avoid using single-use plastic straws the whole month of November. I also felt that it was really important to have the support of the California Coastal Commission with a No Straw November Resolution, which I had drafted to build awareness of the issues caused by single-use plastic straws and stirrers. After presenting on September 15, 2017, with the ask to come back with more information, the Coastal Commission Board unanimously approved my No (Plastics) Straw Resolution on October 11, 2017 (see attachment).

No Straw November’s first year was a success with over 9,000 online pledges, and over 20,000 single-use straws refused during November! Through a special No Straw November patch donation, I was able to donate $2,050 to the San Jacinto Girl Scouts Council to help Girl Scouts who suffered from Hurricane Harvey.

How did you persuade Dignity Health to eliminate four-plus million single-use straws and stirrers per year?

I had the buy-in of the California Coastal Commission, large environmental organizations and Girl Scouts, but I knew that for change to really happen, it needs to start at the top with corporations also pledging to give up single-use plastic straws. At this time, there was a very popular commercial for Dignity Health that featured a young boy celebrating his birthday, and he isn’t able to blow out the candle. So, the father gives his son a plastic straw. Innocent enough, but in the world where you are trying to build awareness not to use single-use plastic straws, it’s not so cute. I emailed Lloyd Dean, CEO of Dignity Health, and shared with him the facts on single-use plastic straws and stirrers and that by the year 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans if action is not taken. After receiving my letter, Mr. Dean asked his team to review their sustainability program, and the decision was made to remove all single-use plastic straws and stirrers from their cafeterias which is over 4 million per year.

How did the situation with Alaska Airlines come about, and how did you learn about the airline’s use of plastic straws and stir sticks?

It’s extremely common for airlines to give out single-use items for traveling customers. I happen to be flying Alaska and saw first hand how much plastic pollution they added to our planet. I knew that Alaska was environmentally conscious but I just reached out to see if they could push it even further. They accepted the challenge to be greener and are now setting standards for the aviation industry.

What’s next for Junior Ocean Guardians?

On the legislative front, my No Straw November Resolution is on the move. California Senate Majority Lead Bill Monning has introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 139 – No Straw November and is being co-sponsored by Jr Ocean Guardians and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. SCR 139 – No Straw November has to be approved by both the Senate and House, the hope is that it will then be signed by Governor Jerry Brown and California will recognize No Straw November.

I’m looking forward to 2018 No Straw November to build more awareness on single-use plastic straws and single-use plastics overall.

When did you first become interested in ocean conservation, and what got you to volunteer (and when) at the aquarium?

I think growing up in California has had a significant impact on me becoming an eco-activist. I was always being exposed to different natural beauties, and I developed a deep love and appreciation for public lands and oceans. I’m very lucky to have the Monterey Bay Aquarium nearby, and I have been visiting since I was old enough to walk. The Aquarium is where I learned about the issues facing our oceans, first participating in the Young Women in Science program and now as a Teen Conservation Leader (TCL).  I’ve had a lot of interaction with guests on the Aquarium floor through different programs, including their Teen Social Media program, CTY program, Guest Track, and their Sleepover program. While greeting Aquarium guests and answering questions, I realized the importance of engaging children at a young age on how they can help and hurt our planet. This is how Jr Ocean Guardians was born, the need to educate our younger generation.

What’s the importance of reducing the use of the straws?

I wish the public knew that it is almost impossible to recycle straws. Due to their small shape and size, they slip right through sorting stations. They either make their way into a landfill to be buried or are carried into nature either by man, the wind or by creatures, and they all most definitely live way past our lifetime. When straws make their way into our oceans, they become high risk for marine animals to mistakenly eat.  If you haven’t seen the video of a straw lodged in a turtle’s nostril, once you have seen this image, it’s a hard image to unsee and not easily forgotten, and I’m sure that you will not want to use a single-use plastic straw again. Another issue caused by single-use plastic straws is the breakdown of plastics, which are finding their way into our fish and other marine animals. Yes, plastic is in their bodies, which means that you could potentially be eating a side of plastic when eating your fish.

What are some of the local schools you have visited to spread the word about the oceans, and what kind of responses have you gotten from younger students?

San Juan Elementary School, Sacred Heart School, Elkhorn Sluis and my activity books have been given out at Spring Grove School. The younger students understand a lot more than we like to acknowledge they do. They always get excited to talk about animals and saving the earth.


Link to SCR 139 – No Straw November: http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SCR139

NowThis Her video: There is also a NowThis Her video that came out on O’Neil and the Alaska Airlines story. It’s also on the NowThis website and it was featured on their snapchat Tuesday. See the video here: https://www.facebook.com/NowThisHer/videos/1277980068999532/

-Q&A by Kollin Kosmicki