When Lily Tipling started research on the environmental effects of single-use plastics, she couldn't believe what she learned.
"Seventy-eight percent of recyclable materials that can be recycled aren't, and they just get dumped right into the ocean and landfills," the 10-year-old fourth-grader at Stafford County's Conway Elementary School said. "It turns into this plastic-y soup and interferes with marine life cycles. It punctures their stomach walls, so it’s hard for [marine animals] to get nutrients, so they die of starvation."
Lily's research was for a school project, but the more she found out, the more she wanted to do something about it.
She learned that across the United States, many cities and a handful of states have banned disposable plastic straws.
Washington, D.C.'s ban on plastic straws and stirrers went into effect Jan. 1. California's "straws upon request" rule, which bans full-service, dine-in restaurants from providing single-use plastic straws to customers unless they are requested by the customer, also went into effect at the beginning of this year.
Similar laws are under consideration in Oregon and New York. Cities in Florida, New Jersey and Washington also have straw bans.
Companies such as Starbucks, McDonald's, Hyatt, Alaska Airlines and American Airlines, among others, have also confirmed plans to phase out disposable plastic straws.
Last year, the United Kingdom became the first country to announce a ban on the sale of all single-use plastics, including straws and cotton swabs.
"If we can ban straws in an entire country, surely we can do it in one school division," Lily said. "We came up with the idea that if we went to talk to the school board, we could actually make a difference."
Jessica Tipling, Lily's mom, said her daughter's original idea was to ask Stafford County Public Schools to ban all single-use plastic products, including plastic cutlery.
"We had to back her off that just a little bit," Tipling said with a laugh.
Lily addressed the Stafford School Board at its meeting March 26 and asked the members to eliminate straws in the school division.
"I come to you because I know that you dedicate your lives to the futures of children in Stafford County," she said at the meeting. "My heart is heavy with the knowledge that our future and the future of our planet is currently in great danger."
Lily was armed with information about how many plastic straws the school division uses. She emailed the nutrition department and learned that the school division spends $4,000 each year on plastic straws—and 1.9 million of them are thrown away.
"I see them dropped in the hallways," Lily said. "I see kids using five straws to blow milk bubbles.
"Our milk and juice cartons are designed to be used without straws," she added. "Straws simply aren't necessary."
For some students with disabilities, however, straws are necessary. Lily said her school principal, J.R. Raybold, asked her how eliminating straws would affect those students, so she researched some alternatives to plastic straws.
Straws made out of paper or hay are biodegradable and there are also reusable straws made out of silicon, metal or glass.
Even if the schools kept buying plastic straws but limited them to the students who need them because of disabilities, it would still be only a fraction of the amount currently used and discarded, Lily said—and it would save the system money.
"Right now, it's just like paying money to ruin the environment," she said.
After Lily spoke before the school board, her mom created a Twitter account for her campaign, @NoStrawsInSCPS.
"So she can continue to tweet until she gets what she wants," Tipling joked.
Stafford Superintendent Scott Kizner told Lily he would add the idea of eliminating straws to the agenda of his next administrator's meeting and tweeted to her later that, "I will provide an update at the next School Board meeting."
On April 9, Kizner announced his decision.
"Lily is demonstrating that one person can make a difference," he said. "I am proud to announce that on May 6, we will no longer use any plastic straws in Stafford County Public Schools."
Kizner said the division is looking into purchasing paper straws for those students who need them.
Lily is joining kids across the world who are challenging each other and the adults in their lives to make changes to benefit the environment.
California teenager Shelby O'Neill was 16 when she successfully campaigned for the town of Monterey to ban plastic straws in 2017.
Milo Cress was nine when he started the Be Straw Free campaign in 2011, which many similar campaigns have cited as an inspiration.
Lily doesn't want her drive to become political. She just can't believe "how bad [straws] are for the environment."
"I really hope that the county does take a step towards sustainability," she said.