Christine Figgener, a marine biologist, says she had no clue how much her video of her crew extracting a plastic straw caught in a sea turtle’s snout would go viral. She also had no idea that the film would help ignite a bigger effort to eradicate plastic straws from our daily lives, which now includes firms like Starbucks and American Airlines.
Last week, the 34-year-old marine conservation biologist, who is working on her Ph.D. at Texas A&M University, was “celebrating” after numerous firms followed Starbucks’ lead and announced plastic straw bans.
“Of course, I’m pleased,” Figgener tells TIME. “However, I don’t want firms to think they’re getting off easy just by doing rid of plastic straws.” I’m hoping this is just the beginning.”
Last week’s surge of corporate plastic straw bans comes after Seattle became the first major U.S. city to do so earlier this month — and as public awareness of the harmful environmental impact of single-use plastic goods like straws, cups, and cutlery grows. (The focus for this year’s Earth Day was plastic pollution.) And Figgener’s film, which has nearly 31 million views on YouTube, is still a topic of discussion as people become more aware of their plastic usage and desire to do more to safeguard the environment. Figgener, in a manner, has given the anti-plastic movement a face — although a reptilian one.
Figgener says she doesn’t want to claim that “one film achieved it all,” but she does admit that it’s an excellent tool for environmental activists and lobbyists to use at presentations to evoke compassion.
“You were able to depict the anguish of a creature who had been harmed by a discarded straw.” “That was definitely an object that passed through human hands and ended up in the ocean,” she claims. “It had a strong emotional impact on people, and it probably galvanized the already-existing movement.”
Her crew discovered the male turtle while collecting parasites from water critters off the coast of Costa Rica. Nathan Robinson, a visiting researcher, uses pliers to slowly draw the object out of the turtle’s nasal canal, which took roughly five minutes to finish. As they removed it, the sea turtle appeared to be under physical duress, with blood streaming from his nostrils and him sneezing and squealing several times.
The clip was dramatic, and Figgener felt that sharing it on social media could make a difference. She explains, “I believed I could really highlight what one object can do, what type of destruction it can bring.”
People continue to tell Figgener that the turtle movie affected their habits, whether it was making them quit using plastic straws, carry reusable bags to the grocery store, or be more conscious of their overall plastic use. “Even if it’s just one item,” she continues, “everyone can do something at home.”
And Figgener admits that plastic is a “wonder product” that revolutionized the world from the time it became commonplace in American society until the 1950s, when plastic materials became more accessible and the economy was growing. Some persons with impairments require plastic straws, despite the fact that drinking with a straw-like device has been practiced for generations.
Straws, according to Figgener, are just the beginning; according to a 2015 research published in the academic journal Science, they account for only 4% of the 9 million tons of annual plastic waste that washes into the world’s oceans and shorelines. They are, nevertheless, a good area to start fighting ocean debris, according to her. Environmental activists and organizations such as the Plastic Pollution Coalition refer to drinking utensils as “gateway plastics” that help consumers transition to single-use products. Animals and humans alike are at risk from plastic straws, which break down into little fragments that can be eaten. In fact, according to one research, 90 percent of all seabirds have ingested plastic, a figure that has risen from less than 5% in 1960.
She compares plastic straws to the plastic rings around six packs that have been largely phased out by companies and that people consciously cut up — in part due to similar emotional photos and footage of animals with them stuck around their mouths or heads — and says she is hopeful that the negative impacts of plastic straws will be gone in the near future.
“I believe we won’t even need to talk about plastic straws in five years.” “There are too many options,” Figgener argues.
The sea turtle shown in the film, which Figgener saw again last year thanks to a tag placed on his flipper for scientific purposes, has a similarly upbeat perspective. A mating couple was discovered when her team was undertaking research in Costa Rica. She double-checked the number in her database when they came home to be sure it was the same turtle.
“He appears to be doing good and going about his business,” she says.