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Newport Beach teen nominated for TIME’s Kid of the Year for ‘Skip the Plastic Straw’ campaign

Chloe Mei Espinosa, with straws, is among the Top 20 nominees for Nickelodeon and TIME's Kid of the Year.
Chloe Mei Espinosa, with straws, is among the Top 20 nominees for Nickelodeon and TIME’s Kid of the Year. She was nominated for her efforts with her campaign, “Skip the Plastic Straw.” Sister Ella Lin, who helps her with the campaign and videos, stands with an awareness poster, and her mom, Alison Yap, and dad, David, join them at Corona del Mar State Beach.
(Don Leach)

It started at Newport Coast Elementary School.

Chloe Mei Espinosa, asked to identify a passion project she could research and act on in the sixth grade, had recently seen a video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw lodged in its nostril. For her project, she decided she’d try to eliminate plastic straws and launched “Skip the Plastic Straw,” with a website called skiptheplasticstraw.com.

Not long after, she was an incoming seventh-grader to Corona del Mar Middle School when she campaigned the Newport-Mesa Unified School District to stop offering plastic straws with student lunches and convinced Dale Ellis, then the district’s director of nutrition services, to remove plastic straws from all 32 school cafeterias in addition to making paper straws available.

“When I heard the good news, I felt like the ocean was giving me a huge hug, saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you for helping me,’” Chloe Mei said about her efforts in 2018.

It is now two years later, and Chloe Mei, 14, said she has convinced the Saddleback Valley Unified and Capistrano Valley Unified school districts to make the switch and skip plastic straws too. She’s also managed to get a hospital in Irvine and another in her hometown of Newport Beach to phase them out.

Chloe Mei Espinosa presented before the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.
Chloe Mei Espinosa, 14, presented before the Newport-Mesa Unified School District After-School Educators Group in 2018 to call for campuses to skip the plastic straw.
(Courtesy of Alison Yap)

In acknowledgment of her efforts, she’s been nominated for the first ever Nickelodeon and TIME magazine Kid of the Year award.

The prize, for which Chloe Mei is a top-20 finalist, looks to recognize young leaders who are making a positive impact in their communities. The top five honorees will be featured in a television special hosted by Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show,” with one nominee to be recognized as Kid of the Year and be featured on a cover of TIME with a story in TIME for Kids.

The special will air on Dec. 4 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time and Pacific Standard Time on Nickelodeon, TeenNick and Nicktoons. Each of the five kids will have the chance to receive a cash prize and be a kid reporter for TIME for Kids with exclusive access to a Nickelodeon event.

The Mater Dei High School freshman said Monday she’d first gotten word of her nomination in September but wasn’t sure she’d get farther than that. When she found out she got into the top 50, she was even more surprised.

“I feel so honored to be recognized for my work, and it’s a great opportunity for me to spread my message,” Chloe Mei said. “It’s so cool for other people to see what I’m doing and what all the other kids ... [are] doing as well.”

Chloe Mei Espinosa, 14, presents to children at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.
Chloe Mei Espinosa, 14, presents to children at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach about her campaign to end single-use plastic straws.
(Courtesy of Alison Yap)

Her mother, Alison Yap, said she was proud of her eldest daughter, adding that the whole family was in tears when they found out she’d made it to the top 20 nominees.

“She’s being recognized for what she’s doing,” Yap said. "[Chloe Mei’s] a very positive girl. She’s always so happy. During COVID, it was really hard. It hit her quite badly with a lot of events she wasn’t able to attend, including promoting from eighth grade to high school, but she still kept a positive attitude.”

“With this recognition, it really lifted her spirits,” she added. “It motivates her to keep wanting to go on.”

The pandemic has made it difficult for Chloe Mei to work on her “Skip the Plastic Straw” campaign but not impossible. She’s participated in remote campaigns such as the Ocean Heroes Virtual Boot Camp and launched a YouTube channel with her younger sister, Ella Lin, called “Sustainable Sisters,” where they review ecofriendly products.

Though she doesn’t know if she’s made it to the final five, Chloe Mei said she plans on approaching her high school in the near future with a proposal to eliminate single-use plastic bottles and to reach out to the Newport Beach City Council to see if the city can also skip plastic straws and offer paper straws instead.

Chloe Mei Espinosa, left, runs a YouTube channel with her younger sister, Ella Lin, right, called "Sustainable Sisters."
Chloe Mei Espinosa, left, runs a YouTube channel with her younger sister, Ella Lin, right, called “Sustainable Sisters.”
(Courtesy of Alison Yap)

The topic has come up before city officials in the past. Newport previously banned Styrofoam in 2008 but made some exceptions for ice chests, egg cartons and prepared food packaged outside of town. Proposed foodware changes came up at a meeting for the city’s Water Quality and Coastal Tidelands Committee in December.

Chloe Mei said plastic straws are still offered on request, but she wants to ask if the city could switch to paper straws on request instead to “eliminate the source completely.”

“I want to keep up doing videos and show you can live a sustainable life and it doesn’t have to be hard,” Chloe Mei said. “You don’t have to do completely no waste right away. It can be one small step, like changing that single-use water bottle to a reusable water bottle.”

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