While Orange County cities are absent on the growing list of those banning plastic straws, the once-ubiquitous cylinders are getting harder to find at county schools.
That’s thanks in good measure to 12-year-old Newport Beach SCUBA diver and ocean lover Chloe Mei Espinosa, who has good reason to celebrate National Skip the Straw Day on Friday, Feb. 22.
Chloe Mei’s concern over straws littering the ocean and beaches — and, finally, a viral video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nostril — inspired her to launch a website, skiptheplasticstraw.com, that asked people to pledge to stop using plastic straws.
Next came emails to school districts, in which Chloe Mei made her case against plastic straws and asked the districts to stop using them.
So far, three county districts, comprising 128 schools, have agreed — two directly in response to her efforts.
“People are starting to understand that it’s not just the one straw they use,” she said. “These straws have a much bigger effect on the environment.”
The seventh grader is at the forefront of a growing wave of young environmental activists, a movement nurtured by a host of environmental groups that last year hosted the inaugural Ocean Heroes Bootcamp to teach youngsters about both the sea and strategies for activism.
Chloe Mei and Manhattan Beach’s Coda Christopherson were two of the standout attendees to the all-expenses-paid summer camp and are among 16 campers who’ve received grants so far from Ocean Heroes.
Additionally, the two were among five youngsters flown to Atlanta in December for an environmental gala — featuring actor and environmentalist Adrian Grenier — at which they received Captain Planet Foundation’s Young Superhero for Earth awards.
“Chloe Mei is the full reason we eliminated straws,” said Riki Pollard, director of food services at Saddleback Valley Unified School District. “To be honest, the issue was never on my radar until she brought it to my attention. Now I understand the impact on the environment. She’s an amazing person.”
A growing movement
Chloe Mei and her peers are hardly the only ones concerned about straws.
The state Legislature last year discouraged their use by requiring non-fast food restaurants to offer them only upon request. More than a dozen California cities have passed stricter prohibitions, with several looking beyond straws to include other single-use plastics as well.
Long Beach is phasing in a ban on single-use polystyrene cups and food containers. Manhattan Beach bans straws, single-use plastic utensils and polystyrene cups.
And Berkeley, which may have the strictest prohibitions in the country, requires all single-use cups, straws, cartons and utensils to be compostable. It has also approved a 25-cent fee for each disposable cup and will require reusable plates and silverware for all restaurants, both moves becoming effective in 2020.
Straws appear to be simply the next target in a movement that started to take hold in 2016 when California voters approved a ban on free single-use bags from grocery stores.
Chloe Mei started her straw campaign last year with her own district, Newport Mesa Unified, then got Saddleback Valley Unified on board.
By the time she reached out to Capistrano Unified — Orange County’s largest school district with some 50,000 students — young activists at San Clemente High School, led by senior Jackson Hinkle, had already persuaded the district not only to phase out straws from its cafeterias, but also plastic water bottles.
“The biggest motivation was the push from the students,” said Kristin Hilleman, the district’s nutrition services director. So when she received the request from Chloe Mei, “It was an easy OK, no problem.”
Hilleman also noted that the district first tried a pilot program for the new, paperboard water containers since they cost 25 cents more than the plastic ones. Students, she said, were on board with the more costly change. In response to students, the district is also incorporating a more plant-based menu, she said.
And when the Ocean Heroes Bootcamp convenes in Vancouver this July, it will move on from last year’s focus on straws to help the young attendees target those single-use plastic water bottles, said program manager Emy Kane.
If Chloe Mei appears to be an overachiever with her environmentalism, consider the other irons she has in the fire.
She is a certified SCUBA diver, takes weekly guitar lessons and goes to Mandarin classes twice a week.
Oh, and she’s playing in the USA Olympic Development Program National Championships next month in Riverside.
“She has a lot going on,” said her mom, Liyen Yap. “She’s very kindhearted, persevering and hard working. And she has fun doing everything she does.”
Chloe Mei has been accepted to return to the Ocean Heroes Bootcamp this year and said she’s looking forward to meeting new people, making new friends and learning more about single-use plastic bottles.
But for the time being, she’s still focused on straws. She used her $1,000 Ocean Heroes grant for posters discouraging plastic straws use — posters now displayed at Newport Mesa and Saddleback Valley schools, and soon to appear at Capistrano Unified schools.
She’s written the county’s other eight unified school districts, pushing for them to skip plastic straws as well. While she hasn’t heard back yet, she feels the momentum building by what she’s accomplished so far:
“I feel encouraged to keep on going and keep in touch with them and keep trying.”
Source: Orange County Register
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