Power of one

How a 17-year-old got the attention of several companies — and convinced them to make a big change

Teenage environmental campaigner Shelby O'Neil. (Instagram/ jr.ocean.guardians)

Girl Scout Shelby O’Neil is a young woman with a big mission. After the California teen learned about the hazards of plastic pollution in the ocean, she resolved to do what she could to address the problem. And her approach was visionary.

O’Neil had already founded a non-profit, Jr Ocean Guardians, that helps educate younger children about plastic and recycling, and hosted beach cleanups with schoolchildren. But this time she was going to target adults, who also stood to effect an exponentially greater change. She set out to contact CEOs and influencers from a variety of companies that she noted used plastic straws, stirrers and cup lids.

“Did you know that straws are one of the top ocean polluters?” she wrote to the CEO of San Francisco based Dignity Health, noting they featured the casual use of a disposable plastic straw to blow out a birthday candle in one of their ads. “Scientists are predicting by the year 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish if we don’t start making drastic changes with our plastic pollution. I’m urging you to stop using this specific commercial.”

The CEO of Dignity got back to her personally, as did the president and CEO of Farmer Brothers coffee and the sustainability manager at Alaska Airlines. All three companies decided to reduce or eliminate the use of the items she had raised awareness of.

Dignity, which has 39 hospitals in California, Arizona and Nevada, held corporate meetings on the issue, Mary Ellen Leciejewski, vice president of corporate responsibility told The Washington Post. Dignity halved its use of plastic straws, stirrers and cup lids from eight million to four million per year. Alaska Airlines now plans to use stir straws made from white birch and citrus picks made of bamboo. And Farmer Brothers wrote to Shelby saying it would replace plastic stirrers with wooden ones.

“The fact that a 16-year-old girl had taken the action to write the CEO” was a powerful incentive, Leciejewski said of Dignity’s reforms. “Maybe it was that it was a single person, one lone voice.”

Below, see a video of O’Neill discussing the damaging effects plastic straws can have on the ocean environment.

Read the full story at The Washington Post.

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