Thousands of used straws collected from Pittsburgh restaurants fill a small office in Homewood ready to be assembled into a giant aquatic-themed sculpture to raise awareness of plastic waste.
“The straw is just an easy way to find a starting point to make a difference,” Rebecca Bykoski, program manager of Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant, said about Straw Forward, which collected and cleaned 25,000 used straws from nearly 40 local restaurants, universities, and hospitals from July until October.
Bykoski hopes the project will “spark some meaningful conversations of plastic use and single-use plastics” and help “people as individuals understand what they can do to make a difference.”
On a visit to the project’s office or “strawffice” on Friday, straws in every color (pink, orange, blue, black, clear, white) and every style (bubble tea straws, bendy straws, coffee stirrers) filled hampers, buckets, and boxes. Staff from Sustainable Pittsburgh and Shift Collaborative, a marketing agency working on the project, plucked straws from boxes and snipped, twisted, flattened, weaved, and glued them into shapes.
Once completed, the sculpture — measuring in at 9 feet by 9 feet and stretching 6 feet into the air — will depict an aquatic habitat, featuring a coral reef, a bird, fish, plant life, and fishing nets.
“The organizing concept is around this moment of ‘food chain’ — one creature catching another creature,” said project manager Anthony Closkey of Shift Collaborative.
It will debut at 10 a.m. Jan. 15, at Carnegie Science Center, where the sculpture will be on display until mid-February. After that, it will be upcycled again by students at Seneca Valley High School who will turn the materials into products such as resin-laid tables.
While straws are the main component, the project also includes other second-use materials from Construction Junction and Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse. For example, discarded dorm bed frames will serve as a base for the sculpture. A blue barrel and a pool cover plucked from the Allegheny River during a cleanup with Allegheny CleanWays will find a new life in the sculpture. Upcycled yarn from Thread International is being used to weave straws into fishing nets.
Straws were an easy way to engage consumers directly, but it’s important to incorporate other discarded products as well, the team said.
“(We’re) thinking about how these plastics … break up into microplastics that don’t ever go away and then end up in the food chain,” Bykoski said.
The straw is just one such example, and project organizers are sensitive to the fact that some people need to use straws, she added. Best Buddies Pennsylvania is a partner of the Straw Forward project and is helping amplify the message that “plastic straws and single-use plastics can be necessary for the livability and access of people living with certain disabilities and medical conditions,” Bykoski said.
The Straw Forward team is also aware that straws make up a small portion of global microplastics, but straws are ubiquitous and easy for people to understand, project leaders said. Though the initial idea was to collect a million straws, the team realized that was a lofty goal based on the project timeline, Bykoski said.
Recycling programs don’t accept plastic straws because they jam up the machines at recycling facilities, per Sustainable Pittsburgh.
“It’s more of like a cultural artifact than the real cause of the problem,” Closkey said. “The shape of a straw contains all those moments in your life that you consume plastic.”
Bykoski encourages consumers to think about how often they use straws and to consider carrying their own straw, to carry reusable bags, to donate used items rather than throwing them away, and to volunteer at a river clean-up with Allegheny CleanWays.
“Those straws make up a small percentage of the global plastic pollution, but they still cause a lot of damage and break down into microplastic and … it ends up in the water,” Bykoski said. “Anything an individual can do to prevent that from happening is an important conversation to have.”
Restaurants, she said, ought to ask customers first if they’d like a straw, rather than automatically plunking one in guests’ glasses. Restaurants are considering alternative options, too, such as paper or metal straws.
Bae Bae’s Kitchen, a Korean-inspired restaurant Downtown, is switching from plastic to paper straws because of their experience collecting straws during Straw Forward.
“Just seeing how many straws we were collecting on a daily basis,” owner Edward Lai said, “It was a lot more than we thought.”
They’re using up their supply of plastic boba tea straws and then making the switch to paper.
“It’s just one little thing that is almost effortless that has a high impact for the environment as well,” Lai said about the switch. “It’s not too much more expensive that it’s going to break the bank because we made the switch.”