By Mimi Wood, The Island Eye News Staff Writer
Photos by Steven Rosamilia
When presented with the fact that over 500 million plastic straws are used per day in the United States one might think, “So, how is me giving up my one little straw going to have any impact at all? Give me my straw, please!”
#StrawlessSummer is a local initiative, part of a nascent national movement, intent on curtailing the use of plastic straws throughout the Lowcountry from July 1 through August 31.
Why straws? Jana Davis, Ocean Friendly Restaurant Manager for the Charleston Chapter of The Surfrider Foundation explains, “Straws are one of the items we find most often on our beach sweeps. They are a major contributor to plastic pollution. They are not recyclable. Compostable straws are just as concerning. They have to be in an industrial compost facility to properly degrade.”
Five hundred million per day…that’s enough to circle the earth 2.5 times, every day. Or, perhaps easier to visualize, fill 125 school buses. Every day. The answer, perhaps, is to #stopsucking, another initiative aimed at eliminating straws.
Plastic-Free Lowcountry, a coalition of 5 local businesses, kicked off #StrawlessSummer on June 20 with a lively party at Redux, a hip art gallery on upper King St. Approximately 300 supporters, including Laurie Turner, standing in for Representative Mark Sanford, strawlessly sipped libations as members of Surfrider Charleston, the Charleston Restaurant Association, 5 Gyres and others screened a documentary by Jack Johnson entitled “Smog of the Sea.”
While massive ‘plastic islands’, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch do exist, the documentary presented the problem as far worse. Scientifically called photodegradation, the sun breaks plastic bags, bottles, and styrofoam into microscopic, plankton-sized particles. By trolling an ultra-fine mesh net, researchers collect an overwhelming amount of micro-plastic, from seemingly pristine, crystal clear ocean waters, hundreds of miles offshore.
Ultimately, “these micro-plastics work their way into our food chain,” elaborates Davis, a registered dietitian. “We’re eating the fish that eat the plastic,” she continues. Circling back to straws, Davis notes, “They can contain harmful chemicals such as BPA, which present health risks for people using them.”
Whether as micro-plastic or wholly intact, plastic pollution has a devastating effect on marine life. Albatross confuse tiny resin particles for fish eggs, which they feed to their young, who then die of starvation, or from the rupture of their internal organs. Sea turtles ingest plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish, a staple of their diet. Their digestive tracts become blocked, and they perish.
With specific regard to straws, an extremely disturbing graphic on YouTube shows a plastic straw being removed from the nostril of a loggerhead…not recommended for the faint- of-heart.
Locally, the Isle of Palms Marina Market was likely the first to embrace the #StrawlessSummer initiative. “We removed all of our straws ‘on demand’; straws are now available ‘upon request’ at the register. No judgement if you need a straw, we’re just trying to do our part to cut down on the excess plastic,” stated Brian Berrigan, owner of the Marina Market. In addition to replacing plastic straws with paper straws, the Marina is in the process of eliminating all styrofoam cups for coffee and cold drinks.
Customer reaction is generally positive. Seasonal visitors seem to embrace the idea, hopefully taking it home with them. Most of the locals are on board too, once #StrawlessSummer is explained. “Real men don’t need a straw,” opined a hardy, local regular.
However, there are some holdouts. “Not my problem,” grumped one old curmudgeon, attitudinal about having to ask for a straw. “My parents had problems, their parents had problems; this is my kids’ problem,” he persisted when presented with a respectful query.
“Make mini-choices every day,” urges Megan Deschaine
“You don’t use a straw at home; why do you need one when you go out?” The thought of eliminating plastics can be overwhelming.
Mindfulness in daily life, such as refusing a straw or plastic bag when not a necessity, is one way to start. Think a small thing can’t make a difference? Try falling asleep with a mosquito in the room.