Among the national conversations that garnered major attention in 2018, perhaps the most unexpected was that of the plastic straw.
Seattle became the first U.S. city to ban plastic straws and utensils in July of last year. Since then, others like San Francisco, Malibu and D.C. have followed with prohibitions of their own. Even the state of California has passed an ordinance on how restaurants use straws.
As several other cities and states debate the issue of such single-use plastics—that is items that are used just once before being thrown away—the city of Pittsburgh has yet to make an official entrance into the conversation. Straw Forward could be the start.
“I think that creating art is such a unique, Pittsburgh way to respond to something,” Sarah Mayer said.
Mayer is a partner at Shift Collaborative, the marketing group that pitched the idea for a plastic straw collection project to Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant last May. Together, they planned to gather straws from local restaurants and turn them into an art installation.
Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant is a program of Sustainable Pittsburgh through which restaurants can be designated as achieving one of four levels of sustainability—bronze, silver, gold or platinum—by meeting certain criteria in the areas of social, economic and environmental sustainability.
From June to October, Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant and Shift Collaborative collected more than 25,000 straws for the project.
“We started with 10 restaurants and it grew pretty quickly to the point that we were at 37 participants in the end,” Rebecca Bykoski, program manager of Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant said. “Most were restaurants; there were some universities, hospitals, Patagonia Pittsburgh served as a public collection point.”
Even before construction of the art installation began, the project was already having an effect. Simply collecting used straws brought awareness to the problem.
“[The owner of Bae Bae’s Kitchen] said that once he saw the sheer volume of straws that they were producing within their waste stream they immediately made the switch to paper straws,” Bykoski said.
Throughout the project, Mayer found that they were teaching people something that she had taken for granted as common knowledge.
“I was really surprised by how many people I encountered that didn’t know that you couldn’t recycle straws,” Mayer said. “It is a little plastic thing and it seems like you could recycle it, but it gums up the recycling machine.”
This little piece of information answers the question so many people had last year: what’s the big deal about straws?
First, the straw does present a problem when it comes to recycling. It’s true that recycling systems are not fit to handle straws, if they even make it that far. Most straws are used in places like restaurants, coffee shops or bars, so whether there is even an attempt to recycle them is out of the consumer’s hands. If straws do make it into a recycling bin, their small size makes them prone to slipping out of the waste stream and eventually ending up on beaches and in waterways. In 2015, a study in Science magazine estimated that there were 7.5 billion straws on America’s shores. Straws are one of the top polluters found on beaches.
Secondly, the plastic straw is a symbol. The push for reusable bags and water bottles started years ago, but until recently when the #StopSucking campaign took off, straws have flown under the radar. Bags and bottles have real, practical uses, while for most of us, straws are entirely unnecessary. Straws represent an opportunity to be mindful of our impact.
“With straws it’s easy to visualize how much waste is generated every time a beverage is ordered. Whether or not you want it, you’re often times given a straw right in your drink or thrown on the table,” Bykoski said. “It’s so pervasive and it’s just an easy way to start a conversation.”
“People can connect to it, see it and think twice about it, and understand from a consumer perspective what you can do as an individual to make a difference,” Bykoski continued.
Straw Forward, then, would hold up all of this needless waste in front of us—25,000 straws brought together in one exhibit to bring consumers face to face with the choices we all thoughtlessly make every day.
Before they could be assembled, the straws were washed, dried, counted and sorted in preparation. Anthony Closkey, project manager at Shift Collaborative, spearheaded the installation’s design.
The finished piece, which is on display at Carnegie Science Center until Feb. 15, is a nine-by-nine-foot square and is more than nine feet tall. It features two main layers: above the water, a massive seagull made out of hundreds of classic white straws flies with outstretched wings and a beak full of seaweed. Under the surface, colorful creatures and corals reside. An estimated 2,200 hours went into the exhibit’s construction.
“We chose the marine scene because ultimately when we think about plastic pollution, a lot of the littered plastics end up in our waterways,” Bykoski said. “They end up on the sidewalk and it rains and they get washed into the storm drains and then they get washed into the river and then from the river they flow down into the ocean.”
While straws are certainly front and center in the installation, they aren’t the only plastics featured. The project used yarn made out of plastic bottles through Thread International, as well as things like bags, bubble wrap and other repurposed waste materials from Construction Junction and the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse. They even recovered litter from the banks of the Allegheny River through Allegheny Cleanways.
“We wouldn’t have been able to complete the project in such a magnificent way without their contributions,” Mayer said. “That terrific collaboration I think is indicative of how Pittsburgh approaches things like this.”
And now because these groups were brought together through the Straw Forward project, they’re thinking about what else they may be able to accomplish.
“We’ve been talking about maybe convening these organizations now that we’re all together and thinking about what we can do that might lead to some future policy recommendations for plastics within the city of Pittsburgh and how to better engage our fellow Pittsburghers within these efforts,” Bykoski said.
Another organization that provided their expertise to Straw Forward is Best Buddies Pennsylvania, a nonprofit that focuses on the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“Really this whole project was about creating meaningful conversation around these global issues of plastic pollution, and so in order to do that we need to make sure that we’re incorporating all angles of sustainability, not just environmental but the social as well and understanding that straws and other single-use plastic items can sometimes be a necessity for people with certain disabilities or medical conditions,” Bykoski said.
Because of what they learned from Best Buddies, Bykoski always recommends that the businesses that participate in Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant keep a small amount of wrapped plastic straws on hand in order to be inclusive to all customers.
Most restaurants in the program have adopted an “ask first” or “wait to be asked” policy, where they only give straws to customers who indicate they want them, instead of automatically placing them in drinks or on the table. In California, all restaurants must operate this way by law. While this is a highly effective strategy for reducing the use of plastic straws, the law does not apply to some of the biggest offenders like fast-food chains and coffee shops.
In the meantime, the Straw Forward exhibit has started a conversation. Countless visitors, children and their parents will see the artwork and the informational signs that recommend more environmentally friendly practices and state facts like, “50% of the plastic we use is used just once and thrown away.” Adults can also attend a free presentation on Feb. 4 at Carnegie Science Center about Straw Forward and plastic pollution.
Young or old, the exhibit carries a message we all can understand.
“I had a young lady, she might have been seven or eight, come over and ask what we were doing,” Mayer said. “I explained it to her and her response was, ‘I’m so glad that you’re doing this because I love nature and I want our oceans to be around for a really long time.’”
Straw Forward is on display in the Carnegie Science Center’s RiverView Café through Fri., Feb. 15. Call 412-237-3400 or visit carnegiesciencecenter.org