The Carnegie Science Center’s Cafe Scientifique: Straw Forward included a film on the shocking impacts of plastic pollution to marine life and a panel of experts who discussed anti-plastic activism.

Story and photos by S. Rose Eilenberg

An interesting mix of generations milled around the lower level of the Carnegie Science Center on Monday, Feb. 4, eating, drinking and chatting. They were all there for Cafe Scientifique, a monthly program dedicated to creating a space for adults interested in science and technology to hear from experts, without the jargon, and ask
questions.

Ralph Crewe is the program development coordinator in charge of organizing Cafe Sci. He wants everyone to feel like they can engage in science.

“It’s important for us to reach a broad audience—to make it so access to science isn’t limited to those in an ivory tower,” he said.

February’s special edition topic was one that has been gaining a lot of media attention: plastic straws. It coincided with the Straw Forward campaign led by the Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurants program, an organization helping restaurants in the region assess their impact on their employees and the planet and commit to reducing it.
Straw Forward was formed by the collaborative efforts of restaurants, businesses, and nonprofits to collect used and littered plastic-based items and turn them into a work of art in order to raise awareness and foster meaningful dialogue around the global-scale issues of single-use plastic waste and plastic pollution. Several other Pittsburgh institutions partnered with Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurants for the exhibit,
contributing their time and resources.

Materials for the Straw Forward art installation were contributed by Allegheny CleanWays from a river cleanup, Construction Junction, Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse and many local restaurants. Shift Collaborative, a creative agency based in East Liberty, built the sculpture and collected the more than 25,000 straws from participating restaurants. Other partners included First Mile (of Thread International), which makes yarn from plastic bottles, the Pennsylvania Resources Council, and Best Buddies Pennsylvania.

Straws that made up the Straw Forward art installation on display in the Carnegie Science Center. Photo by S. Rose Eilenberg

The Program began with a short documentary “A Plastic Ocean,” detailing the shocking impacts of plastic pollution on marine life. In one scene, pieces of plastic are counted in the stomachs of dead seabirds that starved to death because their stomachs were too full. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located in the North Pacific Gyre off the coast of California and is the largest ocean garbage site in the world. This floating mass of plastic is twice the size of Texas, with plastic pieces outnumbering sea life six to one. According to the film, one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed each year by ocean plastic.

After a brief intermission, the program resumed with a panel discussion. The panel was composed of leaders from several of the partner organizations: Captain R. Evan Clark with Allegheny CleanWays, Nicole Kenny with Thread International, Justin Stockdale, western regional director of the Pennsylvania Resource Council, and Terry Wiles with Construction Junction, as well as Dr. Cathi Lehn, the manager of Sustainable Cleveland. The panel was moderated by Dr. Joylette Portlock, the executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh.

Dr. Joylette Portlock moderates the Cafe Sci panel of experts, made up of Captain R. Evan Clark of Allegheny CleanWays, Nicole Kenny of Thread International, Justin Stockdale of the Pennsylvania
Resource Council, Terry Wiles of Construction Junction and Dr. Cathi Lehn of Sustainable Cleveland. Photo by S. Rose Eilenberg

Portlock addressed some of the most contentious issues in the world of anti-plastic activism, like environmental justice, or building equitable communities, and the choice of straws as the poster child of plastic waste. The movement to ban straws has met a lot of criticism from activists in the disabled community, who point out that many people who have trouble eating rely on plastic straws, and that metal and paper alternatives don’t always fill their needs. Sustainable Pittsburgh partnered with Best Buddies Pennsylvania to make sure that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities had a voice in the conversation about straws here in Pittsburgh.
Panelists also pointed out that while our individual actions do matter, we in the most developed nations are not necessarily the main contributors to plastic waste. People in developing countries often don’t have access to clean drinking water, so they have to drink bottled water. Many of these countries don’t have the infrastructure to deal with waste.

Crewe said, “Anyone can walk off the street, come to Cafe Sci, and ask that burning question that’s on their mind. I think that’s very special. Our impact on the community… is to get people thinking, get people asking questions, and get people curious.”

Cafe Sci happens each month. Admission is free and food and beverages are available for purchase. Click here for details.