Student Activists Ask For No More Straws

I’m Linda, one of the high school interns for Abrar Omeish. On September 5th, just three weeks ago, FCPS publicized its plan to remove open access of plastic straws from our schools. This proposal was the result of student activism from the students of Fairfax County themselves discussing what they care about. It has been an honor to contribute to this policy change, and I hope our story inspires the rest of our student body. This is our story.

Nearly half of all plastic products are made to be used once and then disposed of. These single-use plastics often lead to plastic piling up in landfills and oceans where they are ingested by marine life. Nearly one million seabirds a year die from plastic pollution, ingestion, or entanglement. One significant contribution to this pollution is plastic straws. Straws have become the seventh-most common piece of trash picked up on beaches worldwide by volunteer cleanup crews and can take up to 200 years to decompose. Plastic pollution is an enormous epidemic that cannot be cured in a short amount of time, so we started small.

In February, 2019, 14 students came together—united under a common goal of promoting a sustainable lifestyle and environmental awareness. We created our company, Sipsy Straws Co, as a completely student run business. We handled everything from seeking out start-up capital from investors to marketing our product to the public through social media. Our product aimed to offer consumers an alternative to traditional plastic straws. A portion of our proceeds are even donated to SEE Turtles, an organization that focuses on protecting endangered sea turtles through ecotourism and educational programs. Although the Sipsy has since liquidated, one of our last endeavors was the proposition of a procedural change in Fairfax County Public Schools. 

What caught our attention was when Washington, DC announced their plastic straw ban. It was natural for us to want our own county to follow in the footsteps of our nation’s capital, California, and Starbucks among others. However, seeing that our locality has no power to pass local legislation under Dillon’s law, we turned to our schools to do the job. In Stafford County, our neighboring school district, a fourth-grader lobbied the schools for the ban on plastic straws—a proposal that was also implemented. Even within FCPS, at Terraset Elementary School and W.T. Woodson High School, the access of plastic straws is severely limited. At Woodson, the procedure was a product of two students working closely with Food and Nutritional Services. During their initial observation session, they observed that only 50 students reached to grab a straw. In another session, straws were placed under the counter and a mere 6 students asked for a straw—a minuscule amount when compared to a student body of over 2,000. Our schools have already made monumental reforms in the past including replacing our styrofoam lunch trays with paper based ones, so we thought: why not extend the movement to plastic straws?

On May 23rd, 7pm at Luther Jackson Middle School, six of our team members waited anxiously in the auditorium at one of the School Board’s regular meetings. As citizen participants, we went up to the stage and gave our formal ‘pitch’, or proposal. A little while later, we received an email that the board was interested in our proposal and wanted to meet to discuss our future plans moving forward. On September 5th, an official article was released to the public and our proposal was officially on its way to implementation! This policy change involves no longer placing straws on the counter where they can be openly accessed. Rather, the straws are placed under the counter and provided upon request. In addition to making it more difficult to ask for plastic straws, it encourages our students to ask the “why” behind it, inspiring student activism.. Students and faculty will be notified of the proposed plan prior to its integration into schools through flyers around campus. In the future, we hope to see a biodegradable alternative to plastic straws. We also hope this expedition will be further implemented in our county’s elementary schools and even potentially the removal of plastic utensils. 

We, starting as a group of strangers, banded together under one unified goal. With a passion for environmental sustainability, we didn’t let age, inexperience, or fear stop us from inspiring real change in our community. I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone to become an active member of local government, and I hope our story inspires you.

Abrar Omeish