Shelby O’Neil, 17, has made it her mission to end the commercialization of single-use plastic utensils. O’Neil has written dozens of CEOs, asking them to put an end to the practice.
“In 2016, world plastics production totaled around 335 million metric tons. Roughly half of the annual plastic production is destined for a single-use product,” according to the Earth Day Network.
After seeing a commercial from Dignity Health, a healthcare company, in which people were depicted using plastic straws, O’Neill wrote to the CEO explaining how wasteful plastics harm the environment and why they should be done away with.
The personal tone of the letter impressed company executives, who proceeded to start reducing their use of disposable plastic. According to Mary Ellen Leciejewski, vice president of corporate responsibility, the company has reduced their use of plastic by half. Before they were using 8 million straws, plastic lids, and stirrers a year; now, it’s 4 million. Now, only patients in their health centers use disposable utensils. Visitors use reusable utensils, and the company is looking into biodegradable alternatives for patients.
“The fact that a 16-year-old girl had taken the action to write the CEO [was a powerful incentive],” Leciejewski told The Washington Post. “Maybe it was that it was a single person, one lone voice.”
According to the Earth Day Network, "A full 32% of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced annually is left to flow into our oceans; the equivalent of pouring one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute. This is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050."
O’Neill also wrote to Alaska Airlines and Farmer Brothers Company, an American coffee foodservice company based in Northlake, Texas. Both responded positively. Alaska Airlines has decided to replace its use of 22 million plastic stirrers a year with stirrers made from birch and bamboo. Farmers Brothers will also use wooden stirrers. O’Neill also met with Starbucks, who earlier this month announced they would phase out plastic straws. The one billion straws used by the company each year were ending up in landfills and the ocean.
O’Neill, who was recognized with the Girl Scout Gold Award, the organization’s highest honor, started Jr. Ocean Guardians, a nonprofit that educates children on ocean conservation. “I was never really scared of reaching out to companies because someone needed to do it,” she told The Post. “If no one else is doing it, then I’ll do it.”