Eliminating straws won’t save the world all by itself, but that’s not the point.

Evan Baldonado, Webmaster and Engagement Manager

Note: The author of this column leads Palo Alto High School’s Roots Club and is hosting No Straw November at Paly.

Sophomore Charlize Nguyen strolls into Teaspoon, a popular boba tea shop. When she gets to the counter, she places her order, asking for a house milk tea without a straw or lid — and in a paper cup instead of a plastic one.

Nguyen is one of over 170 people in the Palo Alto High School community who have pledged to forego using single-use plastic straws during the month of November, and she is holding true to her word.

This year, a number of clubs, including Roots Club and TapOut Club, have brought the movement to Paly. Students who take the pledge will automatically be entered into a raffle to win reusable metal straws, which are better for the environment than single-use ones. They will also receive Jr Ocean Guardian pins.

According to the National Park Service, the average American uses 1.6 single-use drinking straws per day. Though this number may not seem particularly worrying by itself, it certainly adds up considering the 325 million people living in the United States. That’s over 500 million straws used daily. And that’s just in the United States.

To address this environmentally damaging cultural phenomenon, Shelby O’Neil — a San Benito High School senior, Girl Scout, and founder of Jr Ocean Guardians — started the No Straw November challenge in 2017. The movement encourages people to pledge to refuse single-use plastic straws that are offered to them during the month of November.

The Jr Ocean Guardians’ website states that No Straw November pledges have reduced the number of straws used in November by 20,000 straws to date. Additionally, O’Neil persuaded Alaska Airlines to replace many of its plastic items with biodegradable alternatives and convinced the California Coastal Commission to officially declare the month of November as No Straw November.

Straws only account less than one percent of all plastic waste, Jim Leape, co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions. Put into context, this seems minimal. So, what’s the point?

Admittedly, the act of eliminating single-use plastic straws won’t save the world by itself. We would be disillusioning ourselves if we believed that it would. And that’s why many people dismiss the movement. They see eliminating straws as too small of an issue to actually result in any significant change.

That doesn’t mean the movement is pointless, though. People who dismiss it because of its scope fail to recognize its biggest strength.

No Straw November is a form of gateway activism — its purpose is to introduce people to environmental activism. Yes, the campaign will reduce the quantity of straws that we use, but its greatest impact lies in its ability to educate and inspire.

“It [No Straw November] helps create a pathway to take action by making a small change,” O’Neil said. “I believe everyone has the power to make a change, don’t be afraid to use your voice.”

Since No Straw November serves to start conversations about plastic pollution, it can encourage people to think about their personal impact on the environment.

Virtually no one will transition from a plastic-heavy lifestyle to a plastic-free one overnight. However, plastic usage is not a black-and-white issue; there are intermediate stages between using pounds of plastic per day and avoiding plastic like it’s the plague.

So, what makes No Straw November such an effective intermediary stage? The answer lies within its accessibility. Granted, there are some people with medical conditions or disabilities that require them to use plastic straws; however, for many others, No Straw November is a realistic, achievable goal. After all, which of the following will people be more likely to take part in — pledging to stop discarding large plastic fishing nets, which are a large part of oceanic plastic pollution, or ditching straws for a month? Although most people cannot directly do anything about many larger plastic pollution issues, nearly everyone is presented regularly with the option to either use or decline plastic straws.

That’s why No Straw November is so important. It is a perfect first foray into environmental activism.