September 27, 2019

HUA | Plastic Straw Paranoia

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I collapsed into a chair in Libe with my third coffee of the day in hand. It was a typical college experience: running on little to no sleep for the third night in a row, desperately trying to cling on to every single neuron as I tried to finish everything before I lost another night of sleep. As I let out a long sigh, my friend shot daggers at me with her eyes.

“What?” I asked, not entirely hiding my exasperation.

“This is the second plastic straw you used today,” she replied, angry at my apparent lack of environmentalist fervor.

I slumped further into my chair, trying not to let my eyes roll as I prepared my already numbing mind to an onslaught of shame.

“I’m sure this isn’t your first cup of coffee today, so how many straws have you used so far just today?” she asked. “It really doesn’t take that much effort to give a shit about a small action that you can take. You can literally get reusable straws anywhere, so there’s really no excuse.”

I mustered up the energy to reply but couldn’t seem to do so with the looming deadlines and lack of sleep weighing on my mind.  In the end, I promised her I would buy a reusable straw and left Libe to seclude myself in another hole on campus, hopefully free from environmental judgement.

I did end up buying that straw, and I carried it with me religiously for about four months before realizing that it was nearly impossible to keep the silicone inside clean enough. I got a set of metal straws for free for home use, and still keep those with me.

This antagonizing conversation, however, shut me down completely from environmental activism on an individual level for a very long time. Even putting aside that our proactive, singular actions in a lifetime are miniscule compared to the harm that massive companies inflict on the environment in one day, I felt demonized by my friend for something that I had done in desperation to cling onto my comfort and sanity in Olin. My friend, like many sustainability spokespeople on campus, had good intentions, but the round of jabs came when I was at my most exhausted.

I care about the environment. I actively try to recycle, reduce my waste, reuse bags and a host of other things. However, through this experience, I recognized that talking to people about changing their minds or actions should not always be in the form of anger or accusation. Antagonizing others for acts that may have unfavorable consequences causes rifts in the narrative of activism and turns people away from any form of change. A measured conversation not only allows the other person to talk about their thoughts, but also for fruitful discussion on the subject matter without automatically turning people into defense mode.

Burnout in advocacy is also a buried issue. I recently spoke with the dean of students Vijay Pendakur about my own burnout with advocacy on campus and beyond. He imparted onto me some important advice: it is more important to do a couple of things well than to commit to many things but perform in a mediocre way. Or, as Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation says, “Never half-ass two things. Whole ass one thing.”

My conversation in Libe also made me realize just how difficult it is to focus on some issues. I bought a set of reusable straws the next day on Amazon without having to skip a meal. I have the time to meticulously wash this straw every day. Not everyone has the time or money to be able to support such an expense, even if someone truly wants to help the environment, one straw at a time. Even the Global Climate Strike that happened last week was not accessible to everyone. People had classes they could not miss as not all professors are forgiving of absences, some people cannot walk in the march due to accessibility reasons, and others had a host of other responsibilities. I was unable to participate because I was trying to calm myself down from a panic attack, but I still felt guilty for not being able to attend even though I was simultaneously glad that I took that time to take care of myself. It is important to remember that privilege plays a role in many aspects and activism is not immune to it.

The next time you grab a straw in Libe, think to yourself whether you can afford to buy a reusable straw.  If you can, use your next distracted study break to buy one. If you can’t, don’t beat yourself up over it, and use the caffeine you’re intaking to power your brain to change the world for the better in another way.

Joanna Hua is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]Cup of Jo runs every other Friday this semester.