By Christine Harris
Two years ago the National Park Service visitor center where I work held a public screening of the documentary film Bag It! followed by a panel discussion. Bag It! tells the story of Jeb Berrier whose decision to stop using single-use plastic bags leads him to delve into the complicated world of recycling and the impacts that plastics have on our oceans and our health. The panel discussion was to focus on recycling and plastics in our oceans.
As the panel members took their seats in front of the audience after the showing I was surprised to see a ten-year-old boy among them. The boy was Milo Cress founder of the Be Straw Free campaign. At first I thought, why focus on straws? Don’t we have bigger issues to face? Yet after hearing more from Milo about his campaign I better understood how his message fits into the much larger issues of disposable plastics and plastics in our oceans.
Straws are one of the top ten marine debris items. In 2013 COASTSWEEP, an annual volunteer-based cleanup of Massachusetts’ beaches, found straws and drink stirrers to be the fifth most common type of trash collected with over 5,100 collected during the event.
In the United States 500 million disposable straws are used each day. Though most straws are made of recyclable plastics like plastic #2 or #5, plastic drinking straws present a problem for single stream recycling and most communities will not recycle them. Straws can jam up the large sorting machines used at single stream recycling facilities.
Milo Cress’ Be Straw Free campaign, which he started when he was nine years old, invites people to take the pledge to go straw free by asking for no straw when at restaurants or when getting drinks to go and by not purchasing them for use at home. For those who like to use straws he suggests buying a reusable straw. His campaign also encourages restaurants to adopt an Offer First policy. Instead of automatically giving each patron a straw restaurant employees first ask customers if they want one.
Milo, who hails from Burlington, Vermont, has brought his movement all over the country. In his hometown Mayor Bob Kiss issued a proclamation declaring the tenets of the “Be Straw Free” as best practices for the city. In July of 2013, after meeting Milo, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper declared a statewide “Straw Free Day.” On Earth Day in 2013 Xanterra Resorts, a concessionaire responsible for running lodges and restaurants in many national parks including Yellowstone, Zion, and the Grand Canyon, partnered with Milo to bring the “Be Straw Free” campaign to their facilities.
Milo has also visited countless schools in the United States, Australia and Europe where he encourages schools to stop using plastic straws and raises awareness about larger issues like single use disposable plastics and plastics in our oceans. Not bad for a kid who’s twelve years old.