UW Graduate School

Celeste Barnes-Crouse discusses Seattle’s plastic straw ban

Celeste Barnes-Crouse stands by the ocean

Photo courtesy Celeste Barnes-Crouse

“I think 2018 will be remembered as the year hating plastics became cool,” Celeste Barnes-Crouse, second-year master’s student in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, says.

This month, Seattle’s ban on single-use plastic take-out containers, straws and utensils took effect; more recently, Starbucks announced the company would follow suit with a ban on plastic straws from its stores worldwide.

What stands out about these bans is that while many environmental movements put the responsibility on the individual to make better choices, Celeste says, movements backed by larger organizations are often — on the whole — more effective.

“I can deny all the plastic straws I want, but if I’m the only one doing it, it’s not going to make a massive impact,” Celeste says. “The rate of change for environmental movements is much faster when big businesses have to get on board and seek out alternative solutions.”

However, the ban “is not a perfect solution,” Celeste says. People who are elderly or disabled rely on straws if they lack motor coordination: for them, straws are a necessity. To address this, Starbucks will have some straws available for requests.

As well, the effectiveness of the ban depends on consumers making proper use of recycle and compost facilities for their cups and lids. The lids that have replaced the straws — while recyclable — are still made of plastic. If they’re thrown in the garbage, they will end up in a landfill and won’t fulfill their promise to slow plastic pollution.

But how did we get to banning plastic utensils? Celeste attributes the success of these anti-plastics campaigns in part to social media, where heart-wrenching videos of dolphins, whales and birds trapped in, consuming and even impaled by plastics are going viral.

In addition to these videos, the viral hashtag #stopsucking brought attention to the anti-straw movement, with a handful of celebrities contributing on their Instagram and Twitter accounts.

Celeste notes one video in particular — a heart-wrenching and rather gruesome video of a researcher extracting a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose — that helped spur the movement to do-away with plastic straws.

These videos bring the effects of ocean pollution to a wider audience (even people who don’t live anywhere near the sea) and “push people to find empathy” for marine animals, Celeste says.

Celeste found her empathy and passion for the sea as an 11-year-old on a whale-watch tour. “It was really a formative experience,” she says. “I thought, ‘These animals are so amazing, and I want to protect them.’”

Now a proud scientist and science-communicator, Celeste is working to bridge the gap between science and the public, and make positive change for the marine environment she cares so passionately about.

With her colleagues at the Seattle Aquarium, Celeste has taken on the Plastic Free July campaign organized by a non-profit based in Western Australia. One challenge Celeste has undertaken is to purchase soaps and shampoos that do not come in cumbersome plastic containers. Instead, she’s purchased a shampoo and body wash that come in bars, much like a cake of soap. As well, she is planting an herb garden — forgoing the plastic packaging that comes with herbs bought at the supermarket — and refusing single-use plastic utensils and containers.

Plastic bans are positive steps, Celeste asserts. But until all cities ban plastics, or all businesses stop offering disposable wares, “the best we can do is change our habits and refuse (plastics) when we can,” Celeste says.

“It isn’t fair that this responsibility falls on the individual while businesses continue to consume so much plastic,” she says, “but that is often today’s reality.”

For now, the best way to reduce your own plastic consumption is by being prepared to refuse plastic when it’s offered to you by carrying your own reusable containers.

Celeste recognizes that this is daunting to some people, and says years ago she never thought she would be doing it.

“Now, if you check my backpack on any given day, I always have my coffee mug and water bottle,” she says. “And if I can do it, a lot of others can, too.”

Want to learn more about the issues affecting our oceans? Check out Currents, a blog run by students in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs.

Published July 25, 2018