7 ways Atlantans are saving the planet—or our little corner of it

Plastic Reduction Atlanta took on the plastic straw

Plastic in the ocean
Illustration by Gary Neill

Plastic is the chemical of our lives. It’s cheap. It’s durable. It’s ubiquitous. It’s also forever, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, ultimately meeting up in the ocean’s currents. There, the debris congregates to form such delightful-sounding topographies as the North Atlantic garbage patch. That’s actually the best-case scenario. At worst, plastics degrade into their toxic constituent compounds, poisoning the oceans.

The activists behind Plastic Reduction Atlanta are Pam Longobardi and Paulita Bennett-Martin. Longobardi, an artist and art professor at Georgia State University, has been on a plastics offensive since 2006, going on expeditions to clean the world’s oceans and later incorporating the refuse into her artwork.

A symposium in 2015, “The Plastic Gyre: Artists, Scientists, and Activists Respond,” which examined the ocean’s garbage islands, kicked off their joint effort and led the Atlanta City Council to proclaim March 27 Plastic Reduction Day. This happened to be the same day that Georgia’s House of Representatives voted down Senate Bill 139, which would have outlawed even local bans on plastics. The argument in favor held that bans would be expensive and confusing for retailers to enforce. Of course, retailers seem to be doing fine in California, where a bag ban took effect in 2014. Other states, such as Colorado and Texas, are letting local governments take the lead.

This year Longobardi and Bennett-Martin, a geosciences alum, recognized Plastic Reduction Day by focusing on that seemingly most benign of items, the plastic straw. Inspiration came in the form of a viral video that showed a team of researchers removing a four-inch straw from a sea turtle’s nose. It’s estimated that 500 million straws are used and discarded every day in the U.S. Thus far, Longobardi and Bennett-Martin’s major coup has been getting GSU’s food services to switch to paper straws. (And, it should be noted, Ted’s Montana Grill has been using paper straws for years.)

For her part, Bennett-Martin wonders why there’s so much debate surrounding bags and other single-use items. “These are not objects that mean something to us. They’re just convenient, and they’re destructive.”