We may habitually toss stuff into garbage cans and put trash bags out by the curb, but our refuse still goes somewhere even when it’s no longer cluttering up our living spaces.

“We can’t throw things away because there is no ‘away,’” according to Joylette Portlock, the executive director of the environmental group Sustainable Pittsburgh.

That’s the inspiration behind an art installation that is at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh through Feb. 15. “Straw Forward” depicts aquatic scenes constructed from more than 25,000 plastic straws that were collected from 37 Pittsburgh-area businesses, restaurants and nonprofit enterprises between June and October of last year. Along with the plastic straws, the installation also includes plastic items that were fished out of the Allegheny River and other repurposed materials.

At the unveiling of the installation earlier this month, Jason Brown, the interim director of the Carnegie Science Center, said he hoped the installation would spark “a meaningful dialogue.”

“It’s a community-wide, collaborative effort,” Brown explained. “Hopefully the exhibit will bring positive change.”

The 25,000 plastic straws used in Straw Forward were collected every week by Sustainable Pittsburgh’s restaurant program and the Shift Collaborative, a Pittsburgh marketing and communications group. They were then washed, dried, counted and sorted based on their color and size. The installation shows a seascape with coral reefs and industrial-fishing netting, along with such marine life as an octopus, jellyfish and barracuda. A seagull soars over the surface of the straw-manufactured “water.”

While the makers of Straw Forward acknowledge that plastic straws are a necessity for some individuals with disabilities, plastic straws of the single-use variety have a negative impact on the environment. It’s estimated that Americans use 500 million plastic straws every day, and they end up clogging oceans and beaches and can harm animals.

A handful of American cities have banned plastic straws. Los Angeles is considering prohibiting them by 2021, Nestle has said it will discontinue plastic straws in its products, and Coca-Cola announced last week that it is replacing plastic straws with paper straws in Australia.

“It’s a complex issue,” Portlock said. “Plastics are an important material. We hope to encourage responsible consumer and waste-management practices.”

Although some products can be recycled, plastic straws cannot be recycled by traditional means. When they are tossed away heedlessly, they break down and turn into small microplastics that work their way into the systems of marine life and, by extension, into the food that humans consume.

Straw Forward is “an emblem of a much wider problem,” according to Justin Stockdale, the western regional director of the Pennsylvania Resources Council.

“Our individual actions do have a deep impact on our lives,” he said.

Staff Writer

Brad Hundt came to the Observer-Reporter in 1998 after stints at newspapers in Georgia and Michigan. He serves as editorial page editor, and has covered the arts and entertainment and worked as a municipal beat reporter.

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