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In the RiverView Cafe’ at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, kids take time out from the exhibits to sit down for a snack or lunch. This winter, they are joined by a giant, white seagull feasting on a colorful plastic fish. The seagull is made of plastic, too. It’s part of a sculpture constructed of nearly 27,000 plastic straws and other plastic waste.

A giant gull made from used straws. Photo: Carnegie Science Center.

LISTEN: Plastic Straw Sculpture Draws Attention to Ocean Pollution

“Everything within the sculpture is used, littered plastic that we essentially upcycled into a piece of art that can spark some meaningful conversations around the global issue of plastic pollution,” says Rebecca Bykoski, program manager of the Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant program.

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This artwork is the result of a collaboration with other organizations and businesses called Straw Forward. While some of the aquatic life portrayed in the nine-by-nine foot seascape is fashioned out of plastic debris from local rivers, like styrofoam coral and a shark that’s actually a blue barrel, the main focus is on straws.

“It’s really important to remember that 50 percent of the plastics that are produced, we use once, and then just throw away,” Bykoski says. “And this sculpture is intended to really highlight that.”

The straws were collected from 37 area restaurants over five months last year. Artists and volunteers washed, dried and sorted them before the sculpture was built.

Kids in the cafe’ are drawn to the little clownfish, intricately cut from black and orange straws. Signage next to the sculpture lets adults know that straws and other plastic debris is washed into storm drains, flushed into rivers, and ultimately ends up in the ocean where it is broken down and eaten by fish, birds and turtles. Plastic pollution can kill these animals, and also ends up in our food chain.  

Bykoski says Straw Forward encourages consumers to think about alternatives to plastic straws, like metal or glass.

“As a consumer, you have the power to make a choice here. You can turn that straw away. You can wait until it’s offered to you by your server,” she says. “And for establishments, one of the things that we encourage when it comes specifically to straws and plastic bags is to wait for customers to ask for them first before just immediately giving them out.”

Some restaurants are moving to compostable, paper straws. But Straw Forward advises restaurants and businesses to keep a supply of plastic straws on hand for people living with disabilities like autism and MS, who need the flexibility of a plastic straw to drink.

Bykoski says while straws are just one, small piece of global plastic pollution, this everyday item is an easy place to start to get kids thinking and acting on it.

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Photo (top): Plastic straw clownfish at the Carnegie Science Center. Credit: Kara Holsopple