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The Last Straw?

Why this boy from Vermont wants to get rid of plastic drinking straws

Courtesy of Family

Milo Cress was 9 years old when he noticed something. Restaurants in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont, were serving his drinks with plastic straws that he didn’t ask for. “It seemed like a huge waste,” he says.

Americans use roughly 500 million plastic straws every day—enough to fill 125 school buses. Straws are too flimsy to be recycled, so they’re typically thrown out after one use. Wind can blow them into streets and sewers. Eventually, many end up in rivers and oceans (see How Straws Travel).

In 2011, Milo founded a campaign called “Be Straw Free.” He wanted restaurants to stop automatically serving straws. Instead, he asked restaurants to give straws only to people who requested one.

Milo, now 16, is part of a growing movement. Anti-straw campaigns have caught on in other places too. Groups like “Straw Wars” in London, England, and “The Last Plastic Straw” in California ask restaurants to make pledges to be straw-free. Together, these activists hope to eliminate straw waste altogether.

Milo Cress lives in Burlington, Vermont. When he was 9, he noticed something. Restaurants there always served drinks with plastic straws. But he hadn’t asked for them. “It seemed like a huge waste,” he says.

Americans use about 500 million plastic straws every day. That’s enough to fill 125 school buses. Straws are too flimsy to be recycled. They’re usually thrown out after one use. Wind can blow them into streets and sewers. Over time, many end up in rivers and oceans (see How Straws Travel).

Milo started a campaign in 2011. It was called “Be Straw Free.” He wanted restaurants to stop regularly handing out straws. Instead, they should give straws only when people asked for one.

Milo is now 16. He’s part of a growing movement. Efforts like Milo’s have caught on in other places. Groups from California to London, England are asking restaurants to go straw-free. Together, these groups hope to get rid of straw waste. 

Plastic Problems

Most straws are made of plastic, the same material used for disposable bags, bottles, and cups. Plastic has many properties, or characteristics, that make it useful. It’s inexpensive, water-resistant, lightweight, and strong. 

“Plastic is a great material to use for items that we want to last for a long time,” says Kara Lavender Law. She’s an ocean scientist at the Sea Education Association in Massachusetts. “But single-use items like straws become trash in a matter of minutes.”

Plastic’s properties can also make it harmful to the environment, says Law. Unlike paper, plastic doesn’t completely biodegrade, or break down over time. Instead, the material crumbles into tiny fragments. Scientists think that these fragments will stay in the ocean for thousands of years.

An estimated 8 million tons of plastic waste washes into the ocean each year. Straws make up only a small fraction of that pollution. But they can still cause problems for sea life. Scientists have found plastic straws wedged in the nostrils of sea turtles. Seabirds have also mistaken bits of the straws for food. 

Most straws are made of plastic. It’s the same material as disposable bags, bottles, and cups. Plastic has many properties, or features. Some are useful. Plastic is cheap and won’t soak up water, for example. It’s also light but strong.

“Plastic is a great material to use for items that we want to last for a long time,” says Kara Lavender Law. She’s an ocean scientist. She works at the Sea Education Association in Massachusetts. “But single-use items like straws become trash in a matter of minutes.”

Plastic’s properties can also make it bad for the Earth, says Law. Unlike paper, plastic doesn’t totally biodegrade. That means it doesn’t break down over time. Instead, plastic crumbles into tiny pieces. Scientists think these pieces will last for thousands of years.

About 8 million tons of plastic wash into the ocean each year. Straws make up only a small bit of that waste. But they can still cause problems for sea life. Scientists have found plastic straws stuck in sea turtles’ noses. Seabirds also mistake bits of the straws for food. 

Going Strawless

Campaigners like Milo hope that plastic straws will someday be a thing of the past. And they’re making some progress. Milo has convinced dozens of businesses in Vermont to stop giving out straws automatically. Around the world, about 1,800 restaurants, schools, and organizations are using fewer plastic straws—or none at all.

Lawmakers in Seattle, Washington, recently banned plastic straws. Starting this July, businesses in the city can offer only recyclable paper straws or reusable metal ones. 

But there’s no need to wait for new laws to start protecting the planet, says Milo. Kids and adults can help by simply ordering their drinks without a straw.

“If we can tackle something as daunting as straw waste, imagine what else we can achieve for the environment,” Milo says.

Milo and others want plastic straws to become a thing of the past. And they’re taking steps to make that happen. Milo has worked with dozens of Vermont businesses. They’ve vowed to stop regularly handing out straws. Similar changes are happening around the world. About 1,800 restaurants, schools, and groups are using fewer plastic straws. Some are using none at all.

Seattle, Washington, recently banned plastic straws. Businesses in the city can offer only recyclable paper straws or reusable metal ones. The change starts this July.

But there’s no need to wait for new laws. Kids and adults can start helping the planet now, says Milo. Simply order your drinks without a straw.

“If we can tackle something as daunting as straw waste, imagine what else we can achieve for the environment,” Milo says.

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