What can you learn from Strawpocalypse in Sài Gòn?

Who knew I’d run into Ben in Vietnam and talk with him about his art installation and its role in a campaign to rid the country of plastic straws.

I spent most of my life seeking to change public policy to make the government more responsive and improve our lives.  I was a consumer lobbyist in Congress, founded Equal Justice Works, ran the philanthropic program of the Stern Family Fund, orchestrated a pool of charitable donors committed to campaign finance reform, and worked at the Pew Charitable Trusts for more than a decade.

While some initiatives sputtered or failed, there is much that I am proud of and that I believe legitimately contributed to a better nation.  Working for the public good, however, has gotten much more difficult.   Politics is a rough sport these days and so many of the institutions we trusted and that we worked through have atrophied.  I’m, therefore, always on the lookout for creative new means to educate and engage.

Who would have imagined that a trip to Vietnam would offer an opportunity to see a creative social change experiment in action.  By happenstance, I ended up in Sài Gòn the same day as a friend from Burning Man had returned to visit his art installation.  It turned out that “the Parting of the Plastic Sea”, had just have been awarded the Guinness World Record for the largest art installation made from drinking straws.

The Parting of the Plastic Sea also known as #strawpocalypse was a vision brought to life by Ben Von Wong  in partnership with a community-based environmental group, Zero Waste Saigon, Starbucks (Yes – Starbucks.  They are committed to end their use of straws in Vietnam, although why you would go to Starbucks when Vietnamese coffee is available is beyond me) and a green developer.  Since straws are virtually impossible to recycle and add to the truckload of plastic flowing into our oceans every 60 seconds, the ultimate objective to halt the reliance on plastic straws is clear.

The art is striking.  Volunteers collected more than 168,000 discarded straws off the streets of Vietnam to construct this 8m long, 3.3m tall installation.  Visitors are viscerally drawn to it, but is that enough?

The question that Ben struggles with is how do you take that experience and translate it into societal change.  There are no easy answers.  The volunteer engagement, the media attention at its construction and launch, the social media campaign waged to extend its penetration, the tie to community-based environmental efforts, and the survey to assess the educational impact among those that are touched by the art are all worthwhile.  To be truly effective, however, means that it measurably contributes to changes in corporate practices, government policy and/or societal behaviors.  As with the virtual reality installation on immigrants crossing America’s southern borders that I wrote about here, engagement is only a first step and Ben is a restless soul not satisfied with standard measures of impact.

My daughter is on a similar path in San Francisco.  Leah joined Niantic several years ago.  You’ll know Niantic from the hype around the launch of Pokémon GO and its leadership in the field of augmented reality – a fascinating blend of computer generated experiences that are incorporated into the real-world environment.  Niantic will be launching a major effort around Earth Day in a week.  As with the art installation in Vietnam, they are using their platform to partner with non-profit organizations and the broader public (in this instance the millions of people that play their games).  Last year, their players collected 6.5 tons of garbage as part of their Earth Day initiative.  The ambition is much broader – “As an organization with millions of players around the world, we see it as part of our responsibility to help ensure things such as ocean pollution and global warming are at the forefront of conversation and action.”

At a point where traditional advocacy and public engagement tools are waning, we are desperately in need of creative new strategies like these.  Ben Von Wong and Niantic don’t necessarily have the answers but they are asking the right questions.  We should follow them closely to see what we can learn.

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