Refuse The Straw

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Environment

Rebecca Arnold displays a dinghy full of the trash she collected on Chatham beaches. She brought the dinghy to the Eldredge Public Library Saturday, where Pleasant Bay Community Boating sponsored a panel discussion on plastic pollution. DEBRA LAWLESS PHOTO

Panel Offiers Tips To Help Clean Up Plastic Pollution

Just about every four days Rebecca Arnold of Chatham walks along one of the town’s beaches collecting trash for an hour or so.

In five years she has collected 25 distinct types of trash including waterlogged shoes, Styrofoam coffee cups, plastic shell casings and lots and lots of wayward plastic byproducts of commercial fishing and lobstering.

Last Saturday she filled a dinghy with the trash she collected in just one month and parked it outside of the Orpheum Theater as a vivid illustration of a problem being contemplated by a large number of people that morning. The forum “Plastics and an Imperiled Planet,” sponsored by the non-profit Pleasant Bay Community Boating (PBCB), began inside the Orpheum, where a standing-room-only crowd in both theaters watched the award-winning documentary “A Plastic Ocean.” The moving film reveals the dire effects on marine and human life of the eight million tons of plastic dumped into the ocean each year. Of the 300 million tons of plastic produced annually, half is intended for a single-use lasting only about 15 minutes. The film was shot in 20 locations worldwide.

“I had no idea what an intractable problem this is,” said Fran Schofield of the PBCB, perhaps speaking for many who saw the film.

Following a Skype session with film producer Jo Ruxton, about 60 people filed over to the Eldredge Public Library for the afternoon Q&A panel.

“I’ve hated disposable plastics for about 30 years. Plastic is forever.” said Laura Ludwig, marine plastics program coordinator at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, who moderated the 90-minute program “What You Can Do!” Her colleague at the Center for Coastal Studies, Jesse Mechling, director of marine education, agreed. He said he has seen micro plastics in the remote Galapagos Islands.

Shayna Ferullo, co-owner of Snowy Owl Coffee Roasters and Café in Brewster, approached the problem of plastic from a different angle. When she and her husband opened their café, she wondered, “how can we make sustainable choices in the product we’re using on an everyday basis?” One way the pair does this is by not selling bottled water—despite repeated requests from bicyclists who come in from the nearby bike trail. Another way is by using no plastics—with one exception, disposable straws.

After Ferullo heard the presentation of Falmouth sixth grader Meredith Kinkade, co-founder of the Skip the Straw Campaign co-sponsored by the Falmouth Water Stewards, she says she will reconsider Snowy Owl’s use of straws.

Kinkade struck perhaps one of the most optimistic notes of the day because she demonstrated how with a very small act—declining plastic straws in restaurants—you can make a difference. And if your waiters ask why you don’t want a straw, “it would be good to educate them,” she said. The straw is, after all, the lowliest item in a long line of one-time-use plastic including cups, bottles, bags, lids and stirrers.

Already 10 of 15 Cape Cod towns, including Chatham and Harwich, have banned single-use plastic bags in stores. Ironically, Mechling recalled working at the Orleans Stop and Shop in the 1980s, when a campaign worked to get people to prefer plastic over paper bags.

Mechling noted that a major culprit in Cape Cod beach pollution is Styrofoam. During cleanups on Provincetown’s ocean-side beaches, of 33,000 pieces of trash collected, 6,000 were Styrofoam.

Beaches in the Cape Cod National Seashore recently banned smoking, “and that should be celebrated,” said Nita Tallent, chief of natural resources and science at the Cape Cod National Seashore. “To clean up cigarette butts is virtually impossible.” She added that mylar balloons, which are often released into the sky on festive occasions, also cause problems.

Sometimes people ask why the third world has become so polluted. “Why don’t they just recycle?” asked Phil Goddard, manager for the facility compliance and technology development at Bourne Integrated Solid Waste Management. The answer is “they don’t have the socio-economic resources.” Later he put it bluntly, “those folks don’t have a recycling center—they just have the streets.”

Chris Powicki, representing the Sierra Club, said we can also pressure local legislators who are considering laws to reduce various forms of plastic packaging. One bill, S408, would require food services to use recyclable cups, utensils and take-out materials. “This stuff doesn’t go anywhere, we need to stop it at the source,” he said.

Suzanne Nickerson of Chatham, who collected 250 pieces of plastic trash on Lighthouse Beach in one hour and 15 minutes one day last month, reminded the audience of the potent anti-litter campaigns of the 1960s such as “don’t be a litterbug.”

“That’s why we’re here now, we saw that as a kid and it impressed us,” Tallent said about those early campaigns, adding that educating the young about plastic pollution is vital.

So what can we do?

“Give a hoot,” Goddard said, echoing another anti-pollution campaign that concluded with “don’t pollute.” And buy items that have recycled contents. Call your local legislators and advocate for laws banning single-use items, Powicki said.

“Make a commitment to yourself,” Ferullo added. “Don’t buy bottled water bottles. If you forgot your bags at home, buy the bags from the store.”

And remember—it can all be as simple as refusing a straw.

To view the trailer for “A Plastic Ocean,” go to

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