By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
Her name in Gujarati, which means the one who protects. Isha Sangani, living up to her name, wants to protect wildlife, Puget Sound, and its people.
The Newport High School student started a petition in January on Change.org with “Dear Panda Express: We Don’t Want Your Single Use Plastic.” So far, over 2,500 people have signed the petition. And she wants more.
It’s easy to understand why Sangani is down on plastic. The United States recycles only about 9 percent of its plastic waste. The durability of plastic also means it never goes away. It breaks down into tiny bits. It goes into the oceans, into the fishes, and into us. According to The Ocean Cleanup website, there are currently 80,000 metric tons of plastic, totaling 1.8 trillion pieces, floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Much of it are microplastics, the size of a grain of sand. The patch, located halfway between Hawaii and California, is the size equivalent to 500 Boeing jumbo jets. Each year, more enters the ocean.
Sangani sees plastic waste as a threat to the environment, marine life, and ocean she loves. Her petition declared that plastic “threatens our CRITICALLY endangered southern resident killer whales, and it threatens me and other youth who will inherit this region.” She is bringing attention to an environmental problem increasingly difficult to ignore.
Born in Bellevue to immigrant parents from India, Sangani knew she “wanted to study fish since 6th grade.” She started volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium when she was a 9th grader. As a Youth Ocean Advocate at the aquarium, Sangani often interacts with visitors, interpreting exhibits. Her supervisor, Apryl Reed, said Sangani is passionate about marine life protection and remains positive in her conservation message. Reed said, “Isha empowers her audience to take pride as stewards of our planet, thus making permanent positive behavior changes.”
Sangani’s favorite subject is science. She was on Newport High’s Ocean Science Club team that won the 2018 Orca Bowl, Washington state’s regional competition for the National Ocean Science Bowl. The Orca Bowl, co-sponsored by Washington Sea Grant and the University of Washington (UW), tests the students’ knowledge in all areas of marine studies. Sangani’s team went on to take 5th in the nationals in Boulder. Her 2019 team took second in the Orca Bowl and placed seventh in the finals. Sangani is the president of her high school club.
“I will be heartbroken when she graduates,” Megan Gray, Sangani’s AP Biology teacher and Orca bowl team coach, admitted. Gray continued, “Isha is an exceptional student who has a photographic memory, besides being bright and smart.” Gray found out about the Panda Express petition from another student, not Sangani. “Isha doesn’t like to toot her own horn. She was being cautious and didn’t want to offend others.”
What motivated Sangani to start a petition? “I want to change the world and make an impact,” says Sangani. She can’t vote yet, and she wanted to do something now. Inspired by two young Canadian girls who petitioned Starbucks to use recyclable cups and received a positive response from the company, Sangani decided to start a petition on something she cares about.
Being a good student, Sangani did her homework. She researched sustainability policies and action at major corporations. She eliminated companies who already made pledges to change. Panda Express, a world-wide chain with over 2,000 restaurants, hasn’t. Also, there is one close to her house, which she visited.
“Every order comes with five or six pieces of single-use plastic. They serve 400 to 500 orders a day, multiply that by 365 days, then by 2,000…” Sangani calculated rapidly, then trailed off.
Sangani will end the petition when she gets 10,000 signatures or when Panda Express takes action. For every signature she receives, she sends the company an email.
This fall, Sangani will be a senior. After that, she wants to study marine science, preferably at the UW, where she feels at home. But if Duke University calls, she might go there. Meanwhile, Sangani is a Hutton Scholar studying pollution’s effect on salmon at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Sand Point Way this summer. The Hutton program offers selected students an 8-week paid summer internship to learn about fisheries sciences and management.
A few days ago, Sangani received the following bureaucratic response from Panda Express. While Sangani is excited that the chain engaged with her directly, she isn’t satisfied with its failure to address the single-use plastic issue. Looks like she will continue to gather more signatures for her petition.
Thank you for reaching out to Panda Express regarding this very important issue. We’d like to applaud you for being so passionate and taking action to create progress. As a company, we are currently providing sustainable solution to stores within specific states and cities where local mandates require specific requirements, including (Single Use Plastics) in many stores in Washington. In addition to plastics, Panda has been making strides in other aspects, such as removing foam containers from all Hawaii stores and introducing fiber takeout clamshells. Panda takes a holistic approach to sustainability, and while it takes time to scale implementation at our company’s size and growth rate for the various categories we want to tackle, we want to assure you that bringing the most elevated solutions for sustainability to our stores is top of mind for us and is very much part of our company mission of inspiring better lives. Our teams are currently working on a thorough plan that will outline where the company can begin to make larger strides in this space, and in the meantime, are implementing the necessary changes behind-the-scenes. As the sustainability movement continues to grow, Panda is keeping a close eye on areas where we can have an impact, and we are always open to hearing from passionate guests like you.
Panda Restaurant Group
Becky can be reached at email@example.com.