A one-girl mission: ban polystyrene in Seal Beach

Pia Hirsch is on a mission to make her hometown, Seal Beach, more environmentally friendly.

As an environmental advocate, Pia, 13, participates in beach cleanups, is a member of the children's initiative Plant-for-the-Planet and occasionally participates in protests for the cause. Now, the Seattle transplant's passion project is persuading Seal Beach to ban polystyrene — a common form of which is Styrofoam.

"When I moved down to Seal Beach about four years ago, I saw how bad it was and how much plastic was in the ocean," Pia said. "At first we were just cleaning beaches and I thought, 'There is always going to be more and more of this plastic coming, no matter how much we pick up.' "

Pia knew she had to start at the source of the problem, so she attended several City Council meetings throughout 2016, sharing statistics indicating how harmful polystyrene is and demanding that city leaders take action.

According to several sources, Styrofoam, which has a long decomposition period, has become a main component of litter, endangering marine life. The lightweight material is not often recycled because it is not economically viable to do so.

Mayor Sandra Massa-Lavitt said she didn't make Pia any promises, but based on the girl's gusto, she asked city staff to place the item on a future agenda.

Shortly after Pia spoke at a council meeting late last year, the Seal Beach Lions Club promised the teen that it would stop using polystyrene.

In addition, Councilwoman Ellery Deaton emailed Pia, offering words of advice and organizations that she could contact.

"Enormous amounts of [non-biodegradable matter] come down the river from cities above us," Deaton said this week. "Even if you ban Styrofoam, people aren't going to comply unless they understand why it's important — and it is important."

At one point, Pia walked up and down Main Street asking to speak with restaurant owners to hear what they were doing to be environmentally friendly. Most were responsive to her questions, Pia said.

In the Hirsch household, Styrofoam isn't allowed. When the family of four decide to dine out, they take their own metal cups to restaurants. A fast-food outlet is one of the few places where the use of their metal cups was denied, Pia said, but the family rarely visits the place.

Pia's interest in the environment was further fueled by her attendance at the Plastic Ocean Pollution Solutions International Youth Summit in 2015 and 2016. This year, the summit was held in February in Dana Point.

The summit is a project of Algalita, a Long Beach-based nonprofit dedicated to marine research and education.

During the summit, each student suggests a goal that he or she would want to accomplish to help the environment. The participants create complete plans but don't actually follow through on the sometimes lofty proposals. Pia focused on adding gutters to all storm drains in Seal Beach to help keep unwanted material out of the ocean.

Ed Hirsch said he is impressed by how his daughter is navigating her Styrofoam project, which he found to be "overly ambitious."

Pia does a majority of the work, Hirsch said, but he helps her find phone numbers and informative websites and has driven her around Seal Beach to talk with restaurant owners.

"I've been tremendously proud and also really blown away at how articulate and poised she's been," Hirsch said. "I thought she was biting off more than she can chew, but it's important to let her spread her wings and see where it goes."

In the past few months, Pia's project hit a roadblock. School and homework have taken up much of her time, and her parents have Pia's younger sister to consider when doling out their attention.

Hirsch said Pia doesn't know what steps to take next, but he's hoping an internship with Algalita will steer her in the right direction.

Asked what keeps her motivated to push for the ban on Styrofoam, Pia said she's content knowing she's making a difference in life and won't be "a kid who sits at school, learns and then sits in her stinky office."

Even if Seal Beach does prohibit Styrofoam, Pia's work won't be done. She said she would check in on restaurants to make sure everyone is following through with the order.

priscella.vega@latimes.com

Twitter: @VegaPriscella

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