For her Gold Award project, Girl Scout Shelby O’Neil wanted to make a difference not only at a community level, but at a national level. Growing up along California’s Central Coast and volunteering as a Teen Conservation Leader at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, she was well aware of the dangers that plastic poses to our oceans.
While developing a plan for her Gold Award project, the most prestigious award a Girl Scout can earn for creating sustainable and positive change, she sought to eliminate the unnecessary plastic straws that pollute our oceans. Her mission was to launch “No Straw November” in order to bring awareness to the many plastic straws that are used once and then thrown away in a single month.
“Girl Scouts is about girls championing their inner explorer and change maker,” says Shelby. “It motivated me to pursue my interests and to take on new adventures, from kayaking to speaking in front of thousands of people. Over the years, Girl Scouts has both encouraged me to explore the natural world and empowered me to protect it.”
At just 17 years old, Shelby has made waves at a national level. No Straw November was formally recognized by the California Coastal Commission on October 11, 2017. This initiative was approved unanimously with the recommendation that the California Legislature introduce a measure to officially recognize this month. As of September 4, 2018, the bill was passed by the Senate and Assembly to be finally filed with the Secretary of State.
During No Straw November, Shelby challenges individuals who don’t rely on straws for medical purposes to refuse them for the whole month of November, and to keep a tally of how many straws you eliminated from potentially ending up in the ocean. Plastic straws are frequently littered or dropped by individuals, escape from waste management systems, and can wind up on the beach or washed into storm drains, streams, rivers, and eventually the ocean. They not only pose a threat to our ocean and coastal environment, but also to marine wildlife when accidentally ingested.
“When I started to educate people on single-use plastic, it wasn’t something that was in the news as much as it is now, and many people weren’t receptive to my message.” Shelby says that her involvement with Girl Scouts gave her the confidence and courage to speak up about the issues she’s passionate about. “When girls have this kind of support system, there’s no limit to what we can achieve.”
Additionally, Shelby launched a letter-writing campaign to corporations such as Alaska Airlines, resulting in voluntary commitments of sustainability-minded companies, educational institutions, and environmental organizations to eliminate over 27 million unnecessary single-use plastic straws, stirrers, and citrus picks. “In 2018, Dignity Health is eliminating more than four million single-use straws and stirrers from their 39 cafeterias,” Shelby says. “Starting in 2019, Farmer Brothers will no longer offer their customers single-use plastic straws and stirrers to their customers, instead they will provide sustainable options. And Pacific Gas & Electric Company is eliminating all single-use straws and stirrers from their facilities and conference centers.” Joining a Youth Advisory Council formed by Delta Airlines, she also helps guide the airline’s efforts to minimize the use of single-use plastics, support other sustainability initiatives, and find meaningful ways to positively impact the environment.
Her nonprofit organization, Jr Ocean Guardians, focuses on teaching children across the country about how their actions can directly affect the ocean. She created an activity book to teach children in grades K-3 about the ocean and how to protect it in a fun way, which she hopes to translate into multiple languages. Along with her Jr Ocean Guardian Ambassadors, Shelby visits lower grade level school children and hosts beach clean-ups to educate on alternatives to single-use plastics and the importance of recycling.
Shelby has been recognized as one of ten exceptionally inspiring National Gold Award Girl Scouts for her project that demonstrated extraordinary leadership, had a measurable and sustainable impact, and addressed a local challenge related to a national and/or global issue. Her efforts were featured on Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation’s website and on Martha Stewart Living’s Changemaker series. She was also thrilled to be a presenter for the Dreamforce 2017 Forbes CEO Series on Oceans, where she asked the audience to support No Straw November.
In addition to using the hashtag #NoStrawNovember to spread awareness on social media, Shelby has a few suggestions for how individuals can practice environmental awareness in their everyday lives. “We should all try to follow the 5 R’s in this order: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle. Be aware of the amount of single-use plastic you are using every day, buy fruits and vegetables that aren’t packaged in plastic, use a reusable straw and water bottle, and turn off the lights when you leave a room. One of my personal favorite environmentally-friendly things to do is go thrift shopping! It’s fun to find hidden treasures while at the same time helping Mother Nature by giving a second life to an item!”
Join Shelby’s mission in protecting our oceans today! How many straws do you plan to say no to this month?