Fulbrighter Tells New Story of Consumerism in the Era of Plastics
Lillygol “Lilly” Sedaghat
National Geographic Explorer, Storyteller, and Speaker
2017 Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow to Taiwan
When you hear “one man’s trash,” you probably think of finding treasures at yard sales and thrift shops, items left on the stoop for passersby to take home. You may not think of the tons of actual waste dumped daily into landfills across the planet.
Storyteller and environmentalist Lilly Sedaghat does.
A National Geographic Explorer, Ms. Sedaghat has dedicated her life to employing multimedia storytelling to educate people and inspire conscious consumerism—the realization that our choices as consumers impact the environment—to transform people’s perception of trash and single-use plastics from something disposable into something valuable.
Boba milk tea set her on her path. As a high school student in San Diego, California, Ms. Sedaghat made frequent trips to her favorite Taiwanese tea house. Enjoying a celebratory milk tea after graduating college in 2014, she sat down to think about her future.
“In that moment,” she says, “it was the first time that I saw the plastic cup, and the first time that I saw the plastic straw. And I turned around to the trash can behind me, and it was filled to the brim with single-use plastic cups and straws.”
Realizing that consuming something she loved was harming the environment, she thought: where does all the plastic go?
In 2017, Ms. Sedaghat was awarded a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship to document Taiwan’s innovative waste management and recycling systems. She credits her Fulbright experience with helping her realize just how critical her role as a storyteller is in the fight to create a more responsible world.
While in Taiwan, she visited a small plastic factory to interview engineers, who shared knowledge about plastics and the science behind recycling. When she asked why more people did not know this information, they explained that because they worked at a plastic factory, people wouldn’t trust them. However, they said, people would trust her because she was with National Geographic.
“That moment really stood out to me,” Ms. Sedaghat says, “because it made me aware that I was responsible for telling the truth. I was carrying the weight of both Fulbright and Nat Geo on my shoulders, and my work—anything I wrote or shared—had the potential to influence, inspire, or harm.”
Ms. Sedaghat has taken this responsibility seriously: she launched the #MyWasteMyWay campaign to highlight Taiwan’s recycling efforts and start a global discussion on waste management, and she is an active spokeswoman for National Geographic’s global “Planet or Plastic?” campaign and the National Geographic Live series. She has also spoken at the 2018 United Nations World Environment Day, moderated Procter & Gamble’s Natural Climate Solutions roundtable, and has been named a “5 Under 25: Leaders in U.S.-China Relations” honoree by China Hands Magazine. In 2019, Ms. Sedaghat documented National Geographic’s Plastic: Sea to Source Expedition, a seven-week initiative in which 20 scientists and environmentalists traveled 2,525 kilometers along the Ganges River in India and Bangladesh to study land-based litter and the flow of plastic waste into the ocean.
Currently working on Suan Tian Stories, a multimedia storytelling platform she co-created to explore ideas through the lens of human geography and cross-culturalism, Ms. Sedaghat holds fast to the power of mutual understanding: “In a world bitterly divided and powered by digital content, I hold the most valuable currency in my hand—trust—and I have to tell these stories as authentically and honestly as I can.”