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Young environmentalist spurring US West Coast firms to ditch plastic straws

Shelby O'Neil holds a metal straw in Stanford, California, on Aug. 1, 2018. (Mainichi)

LOS ANGELES -- A high school girl promoting "straw-free activities," which have been gaining popularity along the Pacific Coast of the United States, has successfully persuaded some companies here to do away with plastic products in a bid to reduce pollution.

Municipal governments -- and teenagers -- are taking the lead in intensifying efforts to combat environmental issues, as the U.S. federal government seems to be turning its back on past environmental preservation policies.

"Did you know that straws are one of the top ocean polluters?" 17-year-old Shelby O'Neil wrote in an email to companies running restaurants and bars. The high school student, living in a suburban city about 20 kilometers from the beach southeast of San Francisco, California, has asked such businesses to stop using plastic straws. The young environmentalist was motivated to do something after seeing straws littering beaches.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump appears to have a very different set of values from the teen, as it announced the U.S.'s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, which encompassed an international framework for combating global warming. Pulling out of the agreement has aroused other young people's spirit of defiance.

Demonstrations calling for gun control held across the United States this past March were led by young people, as is the case with environmental activities. O'Neil declared that if the older generation isn't going to act, "We're just gonna do it."

Alaska Airlines is one of some 50 companies that received an email from O'Neil requesting it ban plastic straws. The company became the first airline in the U.S. to announce the elimination of plastic utensils this May, and jettisoned all of their straws officially on July 16. Spokesperson Bobbie Egan revealed that the firm had already been considering abandoning plastic straws, but O'Neil's proposal provided a big push.

O'Neil visited Starbucks, the operator of the coffee chain headquartered in Seattle, Washington, and held a discussion on the problems surrounding single-use plastic. She also teamed up with the environmental group Lonely Whale Foundation, calling for a "straw-less ocean" on social media. Her activities got a big boost with support from celebrities like Leonardo Dicaprio.

Liberal West Coast city governments, enthusiastic about environmental conservation, took action amid public momentum toward the change. Seattle banned restaurants and bars from offering plastic straws to customers from July 1. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, a legislative body, passed a bill on July 31 restricting plastics straws at businesses from summer 2019. Starbucks also announced on July 9 that it will eliminate plastic straws from all their stores internationally by 2020.

Executive Director Dune Ives, 47, of Lonely Whale, stated that a signal could be sent to the marketplace "if we can get Starbucks to come onboard with the straw-less (campaign) in Seattle," which in-turn created a global conversation. She was glad to see O'Neil pave the way to solve environmental problems.

Thierry Rautureau, 58, owner-chef of Loulay Kitchen & Bar in Seattle commented, "We can't count on people like Donald Trump. We have to be the one making the difference." The chef, who believes in the power of individuals and local governments, hands out straws made of paper at his restaurants when asked by customers.

David Wooley, a visiting professor at the Center for Environmental Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out, "The ban on plastic straws is a kind of a powerful symbol that relates to the broader question of single-use plastic trash."

(Japanese original by Hiromi Nagano, Los Angeles Bureau)

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