Girl Scout Focuses Gold Award Project on Plastic Waste

The CEO of Dignity Health in San Francisco received an email out of the blue last fall.16-year-old Shelby O’Neil wrote the email for her Girl Scout Gold Award project.

In her email, O’Neil said that with all due respect, the company’s commercial of Human Kindness had one glaring flaw. The casual use of a disposable plastic straw to blow out a candle on a birthday cake.

In her email, she explained that straws were one of the most common ocean polluters. She continued saying that scientists predict that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean if there are no drastic changes to our pollution of plastic. O’Neil pleaded with the CEO to cease with their commercial.

Now 17, Shelby lives in San Juan Bautista California, a small town 14 miles from the beach. When she learned about the dangers of oceanic plastic pollution, it spurred her to work on a solution through her Girl Scout Gold Award project. Items like plastic straws, cup lids, and stirrers are too small to be recycled. Therefore, they are made to be able to break down faster than other plastics. While it may sound like a good thing, it is dangerous for fish and humans. The plastics become micro in size and eaten by the fish that we in turn consume.

The Influence of a Girl Scout Goes a Long Way

She created a nonprofit called Jr. Ocean Guardians that would educate lower-grade children about recycling. O’Neil has also hosted beach cleanups with younger children. Soon, she wanted to bring her campaign to grown-ups.

Shelby started by identifying some companies that used the easily degradable plastics mentioned above and wrote them letters.

Not every letter worked how she had hoped. A burger based chain in California replied to her saying it had no intention of ceasing their use of plastic. However, to her surprise, Dignity’s CEO personally returned her email. The CEO of Farmer Brothers coffee and the sustainability manager at Alaska Airlines also returned her email. After talking with the young woman, the three companies decided to either reduce or eliminate the use of the items she had mentioned in her email.

The vice president of corporate responsibility at Dignity said O’Neil’s email spurred corporate meetings on the topic. The chain of hospitals after a small debate managed to cut their use of these plastic items in half. While no longer available in the cafeterias, patients can still have these items.

One company said it was Shelby’s persistence that made them take her seriously. Now, Alaska Airlines said it plans to use stir straws from white birch, and citrus picks from bamboo.

Shelby also traveled to Seattle to meet with Starbucks and Costco representatives to discuss possible disposable plastics. However, she still has yet to hear back on their decision on the matter. If that weren’t enough, Shelby is also working towards implementing a No-Straw November resolution in California.

When asked why she thinks the companies listened to her, she paid credit to her confidence. O’Neil said she wasn’t scared to reach out to them. If no one else stepped up to it, she figured why not her?