Maia Nelson Pushes to Skip the Straw

Maia Nelson

If a picture is a worth a thousand words, then seventh-grade student Maia Nelson found the right pictures to change the way her school creates waste in the lunchroom.  

After seeing a video of a straw being removed from a sea turtle’s nostril, Maia became passionate about reducing the number of plastic straws being used and thrown away in the U.S. She started out by making a personal change, declining straws when eating out and bringing a reusable straw for smoothies.

Wanting to have a bigger impact, Maia began talking to restaurant servers, managers and owners asking them to only provide straws when requested. She was most often met with encouragement and, in some cases, restaurants were willing to change their beverage service.

Maia is a member of Evergreen, the Jane Goodall Roots & Shoots club at L.J. Hauser Junior High in Riverside, a student after-school club working to make the school and district more sustainable.

As the club began to look at opportunities to reduce waste in the school’s lunchroom, Maia learned about the One Earth Film Festival Young Filmmakers Contest. She was inspired to share her message in a new way. Maia submitted an eight-minute film, "Drowning in Plastic," that focuses on plastic straws and talks about plastics in general. For her film, Maia interviewed local environmental leaders and used stop motion to show how straws end up in our oceans.

“Straws happen to be one of the plastic items that are the least able to recycle,” said Gary Cuneen in an interview for her film. Cuneen is the founder and executive director of Seven Generations Ahead. “Straws get put into landfills and they’re ending up all over the place.”

Julie Moller, River Forest Sustainability Commission and PlanItGreen Core Team member, also shared her experiences and photographs of a recent trip with 5 Gyres that measured plastic pollution in Bali.

Maia also interviewed Carter O’Brien, Field Museum sustainability officer, about how visitors react to the Field Museum only offering (biodegradable) straws upon request.

One Earth Young Filmmakers Contest judges awarded Maia an honorable mention award for her film.

Pledging to "skip the straw" is one of Maia’s suggested solutions for the plastic crisis, in addition to reusable shopping bags and water bottles.

The Evergreen Club took action and worked to make sure that straws are now only available for students upon request in the school lunchroom. In March, they presented Maia’s film “Drowning in Plastic” to all students at school as they rolled out this change to get student support for reducing lunchroom waste.

You can see Maia’s film and nine other honorable mention films from the One Earth Young Filmmakers as part of the Earth Day Week Mini Film Festival 2019. These shorts explore a range of sustainability topics (plastic pollution, fast fashion, edible gardens, etc.) and were written, directed and edited by youth ages 8 to 25. The event takes place from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, April 27, at the River Forest Public Library, 735 Lathrop Ave., River Forest. Reserve your free tickets below.