The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They are 13, and they probably know more about D.C.’s straw ban than you

From left, Washington International School eighth-graders Sabine Thomas, Claire MacQueen and Ava Inskeep, all 13, are behind the social media campaign “Straw Free DC.” (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)
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They don’t know yet what they will say or whether they will use any data to back up their points. But someday soon, three teenage girls will stand in front of an administrator at their D.C. school and make an important request:

Can someone please get rid of the utensil dispensers in the cafeteria that sometimes spit out more than one plastic fork or spoon at a time?

The extra utensils usually end up on the floor, unused before they are tossed in the garbage, and that waste concerns the girls.

That is one reason for their request.

The other is that, at 13, they already know this: Big results can come of small steps.

“We thought it would be easier to convince bigger organizations to share our views if we could first convince our school,” Ava Inskeep said.

Ava and classmates Sabine Thomas and Claire MacQueen are not just any teenage girls. They are teenage girls who spend a lot of time looking at the world around them and who have taken on an ambitious goal. They don’t just want to change how their school uses plastic. They also want to change how you and I do.

The three eighth-graders are behind the Instagram account “Straw Free DC.”

Plastic straws are little, but they are part of a huge problem

Walk into many D.C. restaurants right now and you might not know a single-use plastic straw ban went into effect this month. You can easily find straws. They are where they’ve always been, right there next to the plastic stirrers and plastics utensils, sometimes wrapped in plastic.

But come July, that will probably change. That month, city officials plan to start handing out fines to restaurants and businesses that still offer straws, which means soon we will see them disappear and have to face our own plastic-use habits. The disappearance of straws elsewhere has already caused grumbles from critics who argue that straws make up only a small percentage of our overall waste and outrage from consumers who don’t want to lose that convenience. In Florida, a man attacked a McDonald’s employee after he was told there were no straws.

People with disabilities have also made strong arguments against straw bans, pointing out the need for exceptions, because not everyone can drink straight from cups or use alternative types of straws.

The three teenagers have heard all those arguments.

They went through each when I sat down with them on a recent morning at Washington International School. As people in this region reevaluate their relationship with plastic — and we all should — I reached out to the teenagers because I think their perspective is one worth our attention. They have, after all, spent more time thinking about the straw ban than many adults.

When we met, they spoke as though they had been fighting the issue for years and not months. They talked about their worries and cited statistics. They described their efforts to change their own habits and those of their parents. They discussed what they wished more adults understood: Straw bans are about so much more than straws.

“Straws are a symbol,” MacQueen said.

“It’s a start,” Inskeep said. “If we could just get rid of that, there’s hope we could get rid of more.”

“It will show people it’s possible and it’s not that difficult,” Thomas said.

On their Instagram account, which the teenagers created before the city’s ban went into effect, most of the posts address the public’s broader overreliance on plastic.

One post features a picture of an eggplant wrapped in plastic with the question, “Is this really necessary”?

Another shows a photo of two hard-boiled eggs in a plastic cup with a $1.99 price tag. The caption reads, “Good thing this store in New York wrapped these foods in plastic, since nature doesn’t provide any type of outer covering on them at all!”

Two of the girls, Sabine and Claire, said they first started thinking about the environment when they were 10 years old. They had chosen to study global warming for a class project and were struck by what they learned. One fact that stuck with them: By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans.

By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans, study says

“That’s when we started to care more,” Sabine said. “But we didn’t do anything because we were in fifth grade.”

Then last year, Claire moved to Tamil Nadu, India, for several months with her family. Living in the United States, she had taken for granted that garbage is whisked away, out of sight, she said. There, she saw it overflowing on the streets.

“Even though they advertised it as a place that was very peaceful and a great tourist destination, there was trash everywhere,” she said. “It was sad to see. I think that’s when it really hit me.”

I told her I understood. I bought my family our first nonplastic straws four years ago while we were living temporarily in Indonesia. Our home was a few blocks from a beach that even on good days brought tons of plastic bottles and wrappers to the shore.

One stretch of beach was so badly littered that my 3-year-old who loved to walk there would ask, “Can we go to the dirty beach?”

After her time in India, Claire attended the Ocean Heroes Bootcamp, a multiday event organized by the Lonely Whale and Captain Planet Foundation that encourages young people to create their own campaigns against plastic pollution. Sabine participated alongside her, and later, with Ava, they created the Instagram account.

I asked all three of the teenagers what their hopes were going forward.

“To see a world with a lot less plastic,” Claire said.

“I hope one day I can walk down the street and there’s no plastic bags in the trees and trash in the gutters,” Ava said.

“I’m just hoping everyone can realize what an issue this is and take action as well,” Sabine said. “That it won’t just be one person, that it’ll be everyone caring.”

As for the pitch they plan to make to school administrators about the utensil dispensers, a good sign came on Monday that it will fall on receptive ears.

A group of sixth-grade girls at the private school had asked months ago for an alternative to the plastic water bottles handed out with younger students’ lunches. When they returned from winter break, they got their answer.

There, in the cafeteria, was a new water dispenser.

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