How much impact can one straw have? The Straw Forward Project

Straws crafted into coral, clown fish, and other creatures

How do you persuade people to rethink something that is deeply embedded in their lives — so embedded that daily life would be radically different without it?

Sustainable Pittsburgh is a nonprofit that works to raise awareness of the value of sustainability — looking at sustainability broadly, so it includes economic, social equity, and environmental issues — and to help implement sustainable practices in the region. They have a program called Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant (SPR) that recognizes restaurants for their sustainable practices, encourages more restaurants to follow suit, and helps consumers see the value of these practices so they choose to support these restaurants.

Last year, the SPR team wanted to increase awareness of the problems caused by plastic use by restaurants, and by people in general. In particular, they wanted to get people to think more critically about single-use plastics — plastic items that are used once and discarded.

Here’s a snapshot of the plastic problem: Single-use plastics are essential to the ways we’ve come to live in the 21st century, in our food system, in medicine, in manufacturing, in housing, everywhere. Yet they pose a clear danger to the environment, in that once created they never truly decompose. Nearly 90% of plastic created since the 1950s still exists on earth. Plastic items break down into smaller bits — microplastics. They remain part of the ecosystem and disrupt food chains, biospheres, and other systems. People often think recycling solves the problems of the growing mass of plastic in our world, and they’re right that recycling can play a helpful role. But only about 10% of plastic used each year is recycled. And many plastics, including single-use plastics, cannot be recycled.

Plastics, hunks of styrofoam, and other trash collected by Allegheny Cleanways

The SPR team asked Shift if we could help capture the attention of the community to rethink plastic use, particularly in restaurants. The challenge was to raise the issue for the public in a new way that departs from the overdone recycling rhetoric. Rather than trying to nag or scold, we wanted to get people to ask themselves what they could do differently to reduce plastic waste from their daily lives. 

To get people talking, we thought it would be necessary to do something big and strange, but we also wanted whatever that was to rely on things people use themselves, so they could clearly see their own connection to it. The item we focused on was plastic drinking straws. Straws are ubiquitous, and each person using one probably thinks, “How much impact can my one straw have?”

To show that small pieces add up to a large whole, we would create an art installation from thousands of drinking straws. Each piece would be tiny, but the assembled and arranged set of them would be massive. The visual impact and conceptual interest of a work of art would help draw attention and encourage thoughtful discussion, in a way that a public awareness campaign typically does not. And within the work itself we could highlight the tragic advantages of plastics: they’re cheap, they’re versatile, and they’re indestructible.

We knew that it would worsen the underlying issue to purchase new drinking straws, so we would need to work with used drinking straws. We’d repurpose trash into something new. We could work with SPR certified restaurants to collect the straws their diners used, diverting these plastics from landfill as a bonus.

We began the public collection of straws in June 2018. We recruited IKEA to donate bins to use for the recycling, and applied branding with the #StrawForward name and details to signal that this was no ordinary recycling setup. When we began, ten designated Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurants agreed to serve as collection points, meaning their staff would drop used straws into a designated bin, or the restaurant would place a bin near trash receptacles on the public side of the restaurant for guests to put straws instead of into the garbage. Restaurants quickly learned the story of the project and began to grasp the enormity of the plastic straw issue, including the point that plastic straws cannot be recycled. We began to receive reports of conversations between restaurant staff and their patrons, and some restaurant owners told us they were looking for ways to replace plastic straws as a direct result of seeing the daily accumulation of them.

As word of the project spread, other restaurants and venues volunteered to join in. Within weeks, over 30 establishments were collecting straws for us. 

Did everything run like clockwork? No, it did not. There were … surprises. Some restaurants filled their bins so quickly that they needed bigger bins. Others had a hard time convincing patrons to take the time to stop and sort the straws out of the rest of their garbage. And logistically, the Shift team grappled with how to efficiently collect bins every week from dozens of restaurants and other venues. We also needed to come up with a system to clean thousands of straws, of widely differing shapes and sizes — and clean them quickly! Turns out that if you leave used straws sitting around, they get funky fast. Once the straws were washed, we needed to sort them by length, width, and color, so they’d be ready for construction.

People sitting on an office floor sorting used straws by size and color
Sorting collected and cleaned straws by size and color

And what would we be creating from this mass of straws? From the beginning, the concept was for the artwork to focus on a moment in nature: a bird catching a fish. Such a scene would represent the food chain, and also allow us to highlight the many forms in which plastic makes its way into the world we live it, and even into the food that we eat and the water we drink. A water ecosystem could lead people to think about the nearly infinite tiny life cycles at all scales that live in and around our lakes and rivers, microscopic plankton all the way up the food chain to apex predators.

The thing was, even with a clear vision of what we wanted to build, we couldn’t predict how many straws we would be able to collect. We were also working with medium — lightweight plastic tubes — that no one on our team had experience with.

Given the uncertainty, our plans were designed to be able to scale up or down to accommodate whatever volume of materials we gathered. We began to think about what other materials could be included in the project to act as structural elements. As with the straws, we wanted to repurpose existing material as much as we could, and use trash and discards wherever we could find them.

Meanwhile, other organizations began to step forward to say they wanted to be involved. Allegheny Cleanways took the team on a cleanup project along the river to show how plastics affect our region. We collected a large, awful pool cover buried in mud that could create surface somehow in the design, plus large blue plastic barrels that might turn into one of the sea creatures. Construction Junction donated wooden bed frames and retail display racks. The Center for Creative Reuse provided a crazy mix of items, including mouse pads, test tube trays, toys, clips and webbing, and bubble wrap.  First Mile (of Thread International) donated 12 miles of thread that had been made from recycled plastic bottles from Haiti and elsewhere, which could help us with construction. It wasn’t clear at first how everything would fit in, but pieces were starting to fall into place.

A few weeks into the project, the Carnegie Science Center agreed to host the exhibit in its Riverview Cafe for a month. They would also host several events in conjunction with it to help promote the cause and attract people from the community to come and see it. Our audience was expanding rapidly. 

By the time we were ready to begin building, we had collected over 25,000 plastic straws from participating restaurants and organizations. The straws came in all shapes and sizes and colors, so we had a wide palette of shades and a range of textures with which to create something not just thought-provoking but beautiful.

But how does one work with plastic straws? We experimented to find out: tying them together with recycled plastic string, cutting them, melting them, ironing them, gluing them.  We wove them into mats, cut them into fans and strips, inserted them into each other, cut patterns, wrapped them around. The straws needed to act as the basis of the focal point of the piece: an ocean bird catching a colorful fish. Straws could also make up the surface of the water and bits of coral along the ocean floor. They also turned into a school of clownfish, and other pieces of the exhibit.

We found ways to incorporate the other materials we had gathered, both plastic and non-plastic. The big, blue plastic barrels from the river cleanup turned into a shark. A block of packing foam and a pool cover transformed into a sea turtle. Pool noodles morphed into an octopus. And after considerable hacking and effort, an old hedge trimmer and a lot of straws combined to become a barracuda. The rubber mouse pads joined up with car seat webbing and clips plus some plastic spools to form a cute sea otter. Toys and plastic bags were adorned with glitter to emerge as a school of jellyfish. A few old pompoms placed on fake rocks were transformed into sea urchins. The First Mile thread formed and supported the water and swimming creatures, and the bedframes became the sides and frame of the display.

And there it was: a lively seascape constructed of discarded matter.

The final project was unveiled in January 2019 in a press event at the Carnegie Science Center and it enjoyed a one-month run as an attraction for visitors.

The Straw Forward project took place over a period when the effects of single-use plastics on the environment are increasingly recognized, and it both built on and amplified the wider conversation about them. The discussion continues: The materials from Straw forward have been in turn repurposed into other educational and marketing efforts (we’ll share details when they’re available). And each of us who connected with project can’t help but view the plastics in our lives and surroundings in a new way.

The Sustainable Pittsburgh and Shift Collaborative teams at the Straw Forward press event

Find more photos and details on the Straw Forward Instagram account.