Photo by Alex Brown / Flickr.

Every day, Americans use and discard an estimated 500 million drinking straws. Along with bags, cups, bottles and other single-use plastics, they end up in our rivers and oceans where they kill fish and seabirds. Increasingly, they’re turning up in our food supply, and our tap and bottled water are now polluted with microplastics.

“The extent to which we rely on plastics is dangerous to our health,” says local activist Marianne Novy.

She and other concerned citizens are taking a stand. With support from local faith and social justice organizations, a group of Pittsburgh-based activists recently kicked off the What’s SUP (single-use plastic) Challenge, an advocacy initiative aimed at reigning in our city’s deadly addiction to plastic waste.

Activists and eco-educators Dianne Peterson, Marianne Novy, Pat Buddemeyer and Elise Yoder will lead a team of volunteers in a three-month, multi-pronged effort involving research into local waste systems as well as outreach to business and political leaders.

Their efforts will be supported by faith-based groups including the Earthcare Working Group of Pittsburgh, First Unitarian Green Sanctuary Team and Pittsburgh Episcopal Diocese Social Justice and Outreach Committee.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Novy, who is also an English professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said the group will release a report of their findings and progress at the end of March. And they’re formulating a list of businesses and local leaders to meet with during the course of the campaign.

In the near term, she says the group will organize free public screenings of films showcasing the effects of plastic pollution and highlighting potential solutions.

Novy says that on an individual level, there are plenty of common sense ways to reduce single-use plastic waste, such as bringing your own bags to stores.

But at the level of state government and policy, she says, Pennsylvania faces particular challenges in reigning in plastic waste, as the Republican-dominated state legislature has resisted previous attempts at regulation. In 2017, a law that would have made it illegal for communities to ban single-use plastics was passed by both chambers before being vetoed by Governor Wolf.

Still, Novy says there is much progress to be made locally. The organization is already in early talks with Pittsburgh City Council members including Erika Strassburger and Theresa Kail-Smith about designing an action plan that will satisfy the city’s environmental needs while still being fair to local businesses.

The group is joining a growing movement of educators highlighting the dangers of SUPs. In January, the Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant program worked with a creative team from Shift Collaborative to take more than 25,000 discarded straws that might have ended up at the bottom of the ocean and turn them into an undersea sculpture highlighting the cost of pollution.

This seagull isn’t out on the ocean eating discarded plastic. He’s made from it. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Science Center.
This seagull isn’t out on the ocean eating discarded plastic. He’s made from it. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Science Center.

Stay tuned for more coverage of the What’s SUP Challenge as the program develops.

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.