Shelby O'Neil

Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. With climate change in full swing, they bear the brunt of its environmental effects, experiencing devastating pollution, ocean acidification, and sea level rise. But one 17-year-old is taking action.

Oceans are closely linked to our climate — they’re major heat and carbon sinks, making them the key to fighting climate change. NASA says the planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century due to increased CO2 emissions. Much of that heat has been absorbed by oceans. Changes in water temperature and chemical composition can harm marine ecosystems and coastal communities, the effects of which can already be seen on the Great Barrier Reef and coastal Texas.

Pollution creates a heartbreaking problem for marine life. More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in our oceans each year. Scientists say plastic particles will outnumber fish by 2050.

garbage littering beach
Pollution like this endangers marine and human life. Scientists say plastic particles in the ocean will outnumber fish by 2050. Photo by hhach on Pixabay

The Teen Taking Action

Shelby O’Neil is giving our oceans a voice. The 17-year-old from California is leading a charge to prevent plastic pollution and educate the public on healthy oceans. She hopes that when people better understand the problem they will make conscious choices to help our planet, not hurt it.

Her environmentalism was sparked while volunteering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where she’s a Teen Conservation Leader educating guests on marine life.

Since then, she founded an environmental nonprofit organization, published articles with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, picked up more than 300 pounds of beach litter, won the Central Coast American Red Cross Environmental Hero award, and taught nearly 40 classrooms about conservation.

Leading Like a Girl Scout

It began with her participation in Girl Scouts. The organization’s highest honor, the Gold Award, challenges scouts to change the world. Instead of diving into STEM, education, agriculture, or medicine, Shelby chose the environment without a second thought.

Shelby earned the Girl Scout Gold Award in 2017 after founding her own environmental nonprofit, Junior Ocean Guardians. With help from volunteer ambassadors, Shelby visits classrooms and organizes beach cleanups to educate others about conservation and sustainability.

Beyond the 13 classrooms she has visited personally, 20 others have requested her educational activity book to implement into their curriculum. Right now, she’s translating her curriculum into Spanish to reach even further.

Shelby told Earth911 that her favorite part is seeing the light in students’ eyes after her visits. “It’s exciting to see how energized they are to make a simple change,” she said.

No Straw November

Pollution both physically and chemically affects marine life. Plastics break up into progressively smaller and more numerous particles in the ocean, slowly poisoning animals who ingest it — and animals who ingest them, like us. Each square mile of the ocean contains more than 46,000 pieces of floating plastic.

Shelby proposed a No Straw November campaign to encourage others to swap single-use plastic straws for eco-friendly alternatives through a one-month pledge. In 2017, the California Coastal Commission unanimously approved the resolution. They received over 9,000 online pledges with tons of encouraging feedback.

Shelby has reached out to several businesses and CEOs to discuss plastic pollution and worked with Alaska Airlines’ sustainability team to solve their in-flight plastic problem. Alaska Airlines is eliminating over 22 million single-use plastic stirrers and citrus picks per year, effective July 16, 2018.

How to Help

Shelby wants you to know that anyone can make a change regardless of age or zip code. She says making small changes, like reducing personal waste, is key.

Next time you’re at a restaurant or grabbing a coffee, refuse a wasteful single-use plastic straw, use a reusable alternative, or go straw-free instead. You can also join volunteer beach cleanups, pick up litter, and recycle.

By Lauren Murphy

Lauren has a B.S. in environmental science, a crafting addiction, and a love for all things Pacific Northwest. She writes from her cozy downtown apartment tucked in the very northwestern corner of the continental U.S. Lauren spends her time writing and focusing on a healthy, simple and sustainable lifestyle.