Waste Not, Want Not

By Ashley Festa

Christy Leavitt ’95 is working to secure meaningful corporate commitments to curb plastic pollution—and single-use items are at the top of her to-go list

At a congressional hearing on September 19—her first in her new role as plastics campaign director at Oceana, the international organization dedicated to protecting and cleaning up Earth’s oceans—Christy Leavitt ’95 testified about the devastating effects of single-use plastics on oceans and marine life.

The next day, she marched with her family down the streets of Washington, D.C., as part of the global climate strike. She was one of about 4 million people worldwide demanding drastic changes to environmental policies for a sustainable future.

“People coming together to call for more action from our leaders inspires me to keep going,” says Leavitt, who graduated cum laude with a major in American studies at Occidental. “If we don’t take action, change isn’t going to happen. We need people to get involved and push for change.”

Getting people—particularly legislators and businesses—motivated to take action is part of Leavitt’s job description at Oceana, whose mission is to restore the world’s oceans through science-based policy campaigns. Her particular focus is on single-use plastics, such as plastic bags, water bottles, to-go cups, and takeout containers. Leavitt says the design is flawed—these items are meant to be thrown away after one use, yet they’re made from material that lasts forever.

Because recycling alone isn’t enough to solve the crisis, Leavitt’s campaign urges companies to accept responsibility for their role in the problem and offer consumers more non-plastic options, such as compostable or reusable containers. She also lobbies local, state, and national legislators to pass policies that reduce single-use plastics.

After only two months on the job at Oceana, Leavitt was invited to speak before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, which is under the House Appropriations Committee. Speaking at the hearing as part of two panels of environmental activists and scientists, Leavitt feels encouraged by the increased interest in the issue from both sides of the political aisle.

“Democrats and Republicans are trying to understand what’s going on with plastics—the scope of the problem, the impact, what more do we need to research, and what they can do about it,” says Leavitt, who hopes the subcommittee will increase funding for research at agencies it oversees. “My main message was that the federal government should address the crisis by regulating single-use plastics. National policies are critical to doing that.”

Policy changes also happen at the local and state level, which is the focus of most of her numerous projects. Currently she and her staff are working to cut California’s consumption of single-use plastics by 70 percent by 2030. In New York City, she’s pushing for citywide limits on plastic foodware. She’s also fighting in Florida to revoke the state’s restrictions on its cities’ ability to take local action on plastic and foam. Leavitt works closely with scientists to ensure Oceana’s work reflects the facts.

Growing up in Santa Rosa, Leavitt says, “You drive 10 minutes in any direction and there’s farmlands or woodlands or mountains. There were such beautiful places—the coast, redwoods, Yosemite National Park—so I had an early interest in the natural environment and wanting to protect it.”

Leavitt brings more than 20 years of experience working on environmental protection issues—from campaign planning and lobbying to grassroots organizing and fundraising—to Oceana. But she credits her Oxy studies with her strong foundation in history and literature as well as her ability to think through problems and find solutions.

While at Oxy, Leavitt took a class called Movements for Social Justice taught by Peter Dreier, E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, developing a strong interest in becoming a political organizer. “She’s the kind of student Oxy prides itself on developing—smart, with a desire to change the world and give back to the community,” Dreier says.

At Dreier’s recommendation, Leavitt accepted a job at CALPIRG—California Public Interest Research Group—which fit her interest of becoming an organizer and being involved with environmental issues. Starting as a campus organizer at UC Davis, she rallied students to speak out at a time when Congress was rolling back key environmental protections. About this time, Leavitt began working with Anna Aurilio, then-director of Environment America’s Washington, D.C., office. In the decades since, they have worked together on a number of projects, and Aurilio recalls Leavitt’s unflappable nature.

“I tend to be passionate about my work and excitable, but over the years, I’ve come to admire Christy and try to be more like her,” says Aurilio, who now does consulting for the Economic Security Project. “I haven’t given up the passion, but sometimes it’s a more effective leadership style to be calm.”

In addition to her Oxy experience, Leavitt enjoyed her time in Los Angeles because she had so many opportunities to volunteer in the surrounding communities: “I felt like I was doing something good for the world.”

She hopes, and believes, she still is.