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No straws attached

23 August 2018
One resident and her call to action: to rid the world of waste, one plastic straw at a time.
Master of Sustainability student Mallika Arya reflects on her campaign to bring an end to single-use plastics, one straw at a time.
Mallika sitting with folded arms between two large industrial bins

International House resident Mallika Arya

Five years ago, I took a leap of faith and decided to become a teacher. To give you some context: I was a national-level athlete, doing my undergraduate degree in psychology, and was absolutely petrified of public speaking. Becoming a teacher meant standing in front of thirty kids every day for seven hours a day, holding parent teacher meetings, and speaking up at staff meetings at school. But something in me pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and take a leap of faith. Fast-forward five years: I barely recognise that person anymore. Teaching students wasn’t about me standing in front of them for seven hours a day. It was about becoming a part of their lives and standing amongst them.

My students taught me more than I could have possibly taught them, and most importantly it was through them that I began to understand how deeply I care about the environment. It began with how much I enjoyed teaching them science, and before I even realised it we were deep diving into newspaper articles almost every day about environmental destruction around the world. And then we started brainstorming solutions. The determination, motivation, and courage I saw my students display in the face of ever-increasing environmental calamities gave me hope and inspiration. It occurred to me to ask: for all the “knowledge” we give our students in class about environmental protection, how much of it are we actually practising at an individual level outside the classroom? This led me to think about the planet I’m leaving behind for those kids. I’d taught them to be independent, strong and solution-oriented, but where would they apply that if all they had left in the end was a degraded planet?

When my two years of teaching ended I decided to take a gap year to travel, learn yoga and spend time with my family. I went and lived in a tiny village in Himachal Pradesh and taught (again!) in a tiny government school. I backpacked across South India for almost three months, and my travels even took me to Argentina and Antarctica. While travelling I ensured that I was producing close to zero waste, and spoke about it with everyone and anyone I happened to meet. My international travels definitely produced a significant carbon footprint. Hopefully the 50+ trees that sprouted out of my compost would help balance that out, even if only a bit! My travels introduced me to new people, cultures, food, and ways of life that I had never known before. Today, when I look back and think about the most impactful experiences and moments in my life, I think not so much about things, but about the people and places I have been introduced to over the last four or five years. My experiences during my gap year and while working for Teach for India have shaped a major chunk of my life so far.

Mallika looking into industrial bin

 

I grew up in a house surrounded by family who knew and communicated the importance of the natural environment around us. Caring for the environment therefore came to me quite naturally. But only in the last few years have I really come to understand that there is still a lot more each of us can do. We get carried away in our daily lives and forget that there is something bigger than all of us; something that we need to take care of. We are not the beginning and end of it all. I often get asked the question, “What difference can one person make?”, and to that my answer is and will always be: “A hell of a difference more than a hundred people who don’t even try.” My belief and commitment to the fact that every individual can make a positive impact on the environment around them has only strengthened since then. A major reason for this has of course been the commitment I saw my students display, and their sheer determination to protect our planet.

I remember the first question someone asked me when I came to Australia for my master’s degree: “So, what do you want to do in life?” I said, “I want to protect the planet.” Their reply was “you’re not five years old.” This kind of mentality is something that bothers me to the extent that it actually worries me! Since when did wanting to save and protect the planet become a childish dream? Questions like this don’t throw me off my path, and for that I’m glad. Instead they only make me more determined. Earlier this year, while interning at the United Nations in Bangkok, I was selected as one of twenty young and emerging environmental leaders from the Asia Pacific region. I attended a week-long summit with the Global Peace Initiative for Women, and I met some amazing individuals doing everything they can to create a positive impact on the world. We shared stories and experiences, and one of the most important messages I came back with was that you’re never alone. Sometimes being overly caring and protective of the environment seems like an isolated and lonely path, but there are others out there who are part of the same tribe. It’s just a matter of finding one another, and inviting new people to join.

The plastic straw has become a symbol of over consumption and our over-reliance on single-use plastic items.

About 10 months ago I began a campaign with two friends called “No Straws Attached”. The idea was simple: to spread awareness about the destructive nature of single-use plastic straws. We would get customers to understand that they have the power! Ultimately it is customers who guide businesses – very rarely the other way around. At the same time we wanted businesses (cafes/restaurants and bars) to step up and play their part by stopping their usage of single-use plastic straws.

In a world that is facing the most severe forms of plastic pollution, I often get asked why I choose to focus on the plastic straw. The answer is simple: The plastic straw has become a symbol of over consumption and our over-reliance on single-use plastic items. It may seem like a daunting task to remove all single-use plastics from our lives (even though that is the absolute need of the hour). The way we have structured our lives over the past few decades makes this seem close to impossible. So instead of scaring people away, “No Straws Attached” is about empowering them to start taking baby steps. Identify and cut out all those pieces of plastic you don’t need, and more importantly talk to everyone about it!

We are lucky to live in a world with access to social media, and I feel there is so much good that can be done when it’s used in the right way. Our campaign has grown from a tiny idea into a multi-country initiative entirely through social media. The three founders of the campaign have not even met once in person, and we have never met some of our volunteers and partner establishments! We live in a digital world today, and it only makes sense to use that platform to create some good.

When I first began the campaign, I got a lot of sniggers and funny comments mainly about how it was a waste of time, and that I should be doing something that will have a “larger impact.” This campaign has been (and continues to be) a great example of what “action from the ground up” means. Today, the campaign is being implemented in five countries across three continents; has volunteers in over 10 countries; has been used as an educational tool in four countries; and has been written about in multiple media outlets. We have managed to get 20 partner restaurants/ bars and cafes on board, who have all committed to using zero single-use plastic straws. Our impact is increasing every day around the world.

In my last year at International House, I have held the position of the environment and welfare officer. This position on the committee was one of the first things I noticed about the house, and I remember mentioning it during my phone interview. Through roundtables, documentary evenings, and even casual conversations in the dining hall, I have realised the power of sharing experiences and communicating about our environmental problems. Sometimes not everyone is equally aware of the problem, and at other times they just don’t care. Interacting with such diverse groups of people has definitely been a learning curve for me as well. There are some residents who have showed an extraordinary commitment to the environment, and I have learned a lot from them.

Environmental destruction seems to be at the forefront of today’s problems, and despite holding all the conventions, treaties, and knowledge in our hands, we continue to live unsustainable lifestyles. I believe that what will truly save us is having honest conversations with individuals, and empowering them to change their behaviour, one action at a time. Every individual has the power within to inspire and lead that change.

So, what are you doing about it today?

Written by Mallika Arya IHMA Environment and Welfare Officer