Assembly teaches students about single-use plastic’s global impact


Sara Yen

Jackie Nunez, founder of The Last Plastic Straw, speaks at a school assembly on Thursday about the impact of single-use plastics. Nunez’s presentation followed a screening of “STRAWS”, a documentary about how plastic use affects the environment.

by Sara Yen, Assistant Features Editor

The first image that comes to mind when you think of the ocean is perhaps a pristine sandy beach shaded by luscious palm trees and surrounded by a sapphire blue sea – likely not the reality of beaches around the world right now.

Instead of the expected smooth stones covering the shore, scenes of colored plastic coating the entire length of coastlines in the forms of flattened water bottles and crumpled bags were presented to students and teachers in a film about the impact of straws on our ecosystem.

The Green Team and faculty sustainability committee presented the award-winning documentary, “STRAWS”, last Thursday during a school assembly. Guest speaker Jackie Nunez, who was also interviewed in the film, gave a presentation following the documentary to further emphasize the deleterious effects of single-use plastics on the environment.

Nunez is the founder of and project manager for The Last Plastic Straw, a movement created in 2010 to raise awareness of and help decrease plastic pollution.

“I started talking about plastics in 2009, and what really prompted me was the amount of traveling I was doing. It’s been exponential, the amount of plastic I saw everywhere,” Nunez said in an interview. “I’m really excited about Harker because I think in the next year, you guys will really be able to get a handle on the plastics that you guys participate in and put out here. You have the [water bottle] refill stations. You have a lot of things going, and that’s how it starts.”

Harker’s upper school has changed drink options to decrease its plastic usage over the past several years.

“About five years ago, [Harker] decided to stop using cups in the faculty rooms and in lots of different places. When I first got here 10 years ago, there were plastic water bottles available at lunchtime. Then it was two years ago, the end of 2016, [when] we used to have Capri Suns [and] those little juice cups, thimbleful, [which] were like half cups but they were plastic with a foil pull-top. Those were the drink offerings,” marine biology teacher Dr. Kate Schafer said. “We decided to transition from those, because they created so much plastic waste and most of them were not even recyclable plastics, to the system that we have now.”

As the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a partnership of organizations dedicated to limiting plastic pollution, emphasizes, only eight percent of plastic is recycled from the 30 million tons that Americans use.

“A lot of the plastic that does get recycled historically anyway has been shipped to China on container ships and processed there, which seems like a crazy idea, like we’re taking our waste and shipping to some other country and expecting them to deal with this waste,” Dr. Schafer said. “If you’re going to sit down at lunch and have a drink and throw that [cup] away, why have we invested all those resources in that one-time event?”

The upper school uses around 5,000 plastic utensils a month, according to Rachel Joslyn, assistant to executive chef Steve Martin.

The kitchen staff uses mostly metal utensils but adds plastic ones because many metal utensils are thrown away; metal utensils cost the kitchen around 10 times as much as plastic ones.

Pullquote Photo

I’m really excited about Harker because I think in the next year, you guys will really be able to get a handle on the plastics that you guys participate in and put out here.”

— Jackie Nunez

“Even today at lunch, there are plastic utensils, and all the time there are plastic cups in Manzanita, so [Green Team is] trying to reduce those first and get Harker to make a change, because even though sometimes people might think ‘Harker is green,’ it’s the community that has to make us green,” Green Team public relations officer Natasha Yen (10) said. “It can’t just be Green Team that does it, because in the end, [it is] every individual that in turn makes our community more environmentally friendly.”

Around 8.5 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, as stated by the documentary, and marine animals can mistake the plastic for food.

The film showed a clip of a video where a research team from Texas A&M University discovered a sea turtle with a straw in its nostril before removing it.

“Plastic is a kind of invader; it’s a new substance. It’s not from the earth in the way that other things are from the earth,” said interviewee Pam Longobardi, a professor of art at Georgia State University who makes art using ocean plastic debris, in the film. “Nature doesn’t have a way to deal with this in the way that it does with other materials. Subsequently, it’s coming back to harm us.”

According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, 33 percent of plastic is used only once before being thrown away. The material is not biodegradable and can only decompose into smaller fragments.

Nunez underscores the need for community action in order to decrease plastic pollution.

“There needs to be a lot of accountability [for single-use plastic] all the way up the supply chain, and it does start with us, but also it’s not putting them off the hook,” Nunez said. “You have to clean your own house before you can clean anyone else’s.”

The hard work of Nunez and other activists against single-use plastic reaps progress. On the same day as the assembly, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill, AB-1884, mandating that full-service restaurants only distribute straws upon request, resulting in California being the first state to do so.

While restaurants that break this law could be fined $25 per day and at most $300 every year, fast food restaurants are unaffected by this bill, which is planned to come into effect Jan. 1.

“One of the messages from the film is that it’s a lot about habit, that we’re in the habit of grabbing a single use water bottle instead of bringing our own. We’re in the habit of thinking that it’s just natural to have a straw in our drink,” Dr. Schafer said. “In California, you have to ask someone if they want a straw. Again, that just helps us in that transition to changing our habits.”

Nunez hopes the discussion on straws is only the beginning for the address of plastic usage on a larger scale.

“I want to move on from straws — that’s just the starting point. There’s a bigger problem [about plastics], and we need to get there. It’s part of the whole system with global warming [and] climate change,” Nunez said. “If you want to divest from fossil fuels, start with saying no to single-use plastic.”