The Advocate Feature: World Environment Day

The last straw: Local organizations and activists join global effort to beat plastic pollution

Thirteen million tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans each year, leading scientists to believe that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the water. But a local activist who isn’t even old enough to drive wants to crush those numbers.

During United Nations World Environment Day on June 5, New Orleans grade schooler Hrilina Ramrakhiani stood behind a podium in the Historic Carver Theater and addressed city officials, along with world leaders participating in the 2018 G-7 Summit in Canada who were taking part live video conferencing.

“I serve on the Louisiana Legislative Youth Advisory Council,” said Hrilina, who was wearing a sparkly headband. “We have been working on a plan to remove Styrofoam and other single-use plastic waste from our daily environment. And on behalf of the children of this city, I request Mayor (Latoya) Cantrell, the mayor of New Orleans, to become the first mayor east of the Mississippi River to implement a zero waste policy as recommended by your Environmental Advisory Committee.”

That morning, a total of eight kids presented campaigns to beat plastic pollution, and called on world leaders for help.

“We specifically chose New Orleans for World Environment Day because we’re working closely with the mayors and legislators along the Mississippi River to address the issue of plastic pollution,” said Laura Fuller, the head of communications for the UN Environment’s North America office. “New Orleans is at the end of the Mississippi River, so they have a lot of plastics coming through here, and into the Gulf and the ocean.”

The international conference capped the New Orleans-based Ocean Heroes Bootcamp — a three-day workshop that gave adolescents the scientific knowledge, campaign development tools and support to reduce plastic pollution.

The main target: single-use straws.

“I love speaking in front of people and using my voice to make a difference,” said Hrilina. Her campaign proposed that “family-owned businesses” use “artistic, reusable, souvenir drink ware” that markets their business, rather than Styrofoam go-cups; it will cost the business less money in the long run, she argues.

“It’s a win for the business and for the customers. It’s a win for the environment,” she said, adding that she developed the campaign concept during the boot camp.

The majority of the inaugural event happened inside the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.

It was launched by a group of national environmental organizations along with celebrity activists, such as Adrian Grenier — an actor, UN environment goodwill ambassador and the co-founder of Lonely Whale, which advocates for clean oceans and a healthy environment. 

“I’m humbled by the wisdom of those kids,” said Grenier. “To feel their earnest energy is so inspiring.”

Earlier in the year, the actor wrote an article for Time magazine explaining that most plastic straws slip through mechanical recycling sorters and mix with other materials; they contaminate recycling loads or they are simply thrown away as garbage.

In an effort to draw awareness to the problem, Grenier has traveled the world running campaigns aimed at eliminating pollution caused by single-use plastics, which kill nearly 100,000 marine animals each year and contaminate the fish that people eat. 

“Fish in general have plastic in them, and that’s toxic for humans,” Grenier said. Some locally popular kinds of seafood, such as oysters, are especially vulnerable to plastic contamination.

Grenier believes that getting ride of single-use straws is a small step in the right direction.

“That will be a tremendous help, because in this country we use 500 million of them every day,” he said. “Start with plastic straws … and after that, I promise you’re going to move on to the cup and the lid.”

Art and education

The effort to reduce single-use plastics, including the ubiquitous straw, has gained momentum on a local level.

Last year, The Audubon Nature Institute partnered with aquariums across the country to address the massive dilemma of marine debris.

Nearly 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year, and less than 10 percent of it is recycled. The trash travels through waterways and into the ocean. And since plastic isn’t biodegradable, it breaks into smaller pieces, but never quite dissolves.

“What we’re seeing is animals ingesting the plastics,” said Rich Toth, the director of the Audubon Aquarium. “It makes them feel full, and since they don’t pass it, they basically starve to death with a full belly. We also see some entanglement issues.”

Toth said the institute banned plastic straws “because they represent a danger to our animals … a side benefit is that it saves us money.” Paper straws come with beverages sold in their theaters, “because it’s dark and you’re climbing stairs, and it’s a bit of a challenge to have a fountain drink that doesn’t have a lid or a straw in it.”

The inquiries from visitors allow employees to explain the environmental hazards caused by the tiny utensils — and inspire those visitors to consider sustainable alternatives.

In addition to banning plastic straws, the organization offers paper cups for fountain drinks, along with paper bags and inexpensive, reusable shopping bags in their gift shops.

In late July, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and Audubon Zoo will debut their latest conservation initiative: “Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea.’’ The limited-time exhibition features larger-than-life aquatic animal sculptures crafted from colorful bits of plastic trash, collected from Pacific Coast beaches. The message is clear: Plastic pollution threatens the ecosystems of the world’s oceans and waterways.

“When you look at them from a distance, they’re absolutely beautiful pieces,” said Toth. “As you move closer, you realize they’re made of garbage that you’ve used in your everyday life. It’s an opportunity to show people that once these things go into the trash bin, they continue to live on. And in some cases, they make it into the environment and create a negative impact on marine life.”

LifeCity is another a local organization trying to beat plastic pollution. It connects businesses, including restaurants, to eco-friendly business supplies.

“LifeCity makes social and environmental impact profitable,” said Liz Shephard, the founder and CEO of LifeCity. “We help businesses and communities understand that when you support your human and natural resources, your economy does better.”

Client Casa Borrega has eliminated plastic straws and now saves money on those costs. Another client, Seed restaurant on Prytania Street, offers recycled, biodegradable and compostable “to-go” products, including straws.

New Orleans City Park plans to make plastic straws and lids for cold beverages available only upon request at certain facilities; paper bags are now used in the gift shops; and the park has added a “green clause” to all event contracts that eliminates plastic bags, glass and Styrofoam from events in the park.

The park is also working to replace single-use plastics with compostable and recyclable alternatives, and they’re implementing zero-waste practices, a spokeswoman said.

Small changes add up, Shephard said.

“Making habitual changes, like not drinking out of a straw, or thinking to ask for a paper straw, is always difficult,” she said. “Once people understand how deeply connected plastic pollution is to the things we love — like seafood, our oceans and the local wildlife — we can make changes.”

The straw-free Crescent City

In September 2017, Grenier and his Lonely Whale colleagues ran a one-month campaign called “Strawless in Seattle.” Businesses and local celebrities promised to use biodegradable alternatives, such as paper straws, to single-use plastic straws. During the campaign, nearly 2.3 million single-use plastic straws were removed from Seattle.

When asked if he’d launch a similar initiative in New Orleans, a city that doesn’t have much in common with Seattle, Grenier said: “Absolutely.”

“We want to make sure we have the right team, because success is the only option for us,” he explained. “We seek local support, because nobody, like the people who live in New Orleans, know the community and know the unique challenges and opportunities in this city.”

Grenier can likely count on support from one of his Ocean Heroes Bootcamp graduates — Hrilina .

“I’m always very interested in helping to save the environment in any way I can,” said Hrilina, noting that she donates recyclable items to her school’s art center.

She revealed she’s also “trying to pass a bill” that requires students to bring reusable water bottles to school, instead of plastic ones. After all, her classmates, and her generation in general, will foster the society that’s not dependent on plastic, she said.

“Start with the youth. The youth is the future,” she said. “They’re going to teach their parents, and they’re going to teach their friends. It will keep going.” 

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