Students Working To Eliminate Plastic Straws

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Monomoy Regional Middle School , Environment

A plastic straw is removed from the nostril of a sea turtle off Costa Rica. A 2015 video of the operation went viral and helped stir interest in eliminating plastic straws among many, including students at Monomoy Regional Middle School. YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT

CHATHAM – A video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nostril has galvanized Monomoy Regional Middle School students to work toward eliminating straws in the school's cafeteria.

Members of the school's garden club and animal rights club recently brainstormed ways to increase awareness among students of the pollution caused by plastic straws as well as convincing school officials to replace plastic straws with other options, such as paper or metal straws.

Or remove them altogether.

Jill Talladay, founder and executive director of Care for the Cape and Islands, gave students the hard facts about plastic straws. Some 520 million are used and thrown away every day in the U.S. Every American will use 35,000 straws in his or her lifetime. Some 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute marine waters around the world, Bloomberg recently reported.

Awareness of plastic straws received a huge boost from the 2015 video taken off the coast of Costa Rica by Christine Figgener, a sea turtle expert at Texas A&M University. Her team had rescued an olive Ridley sea turtle and noticed a straw protruding from its nostril. “It looked like a worm,” she says in the video, which has received millions of views on YouTube. The object is slowly extracted to reveal a complete plastic straw. After some minor treatment, the turtle was returned to the sea apparently none the worse for wear.

The incident inspired students around the world, including kids in Martha's Vineyard and Falmouth, to work toward eliminating plastic straws. It also had an impact on the kids in the school's animal rights club, said fifth grade teacher and club advisor Jane Babb. The students, along with their compatriots from the garden club, run by Jean Copeland, discussed different options, ranging from using paper straws to making metal straws available to those who want or perhaps need them, to simply removing straws from the cafeteria. Fifth grader Ethan Seufert suggested researching paper straws to find out which are the least expensive.

Fifth grader Jillian Stevenson said she knows only a few people who use straws. She suggested the group show the turtle video or their own slide show to other students. “It would bring awareness,” she said.

Tallady told the students that her organization's goal is to inspire people, both visitors and Cape residents, to be responsible for the environment. “It's really about inspiring people to do the right thing,” she said. When it comes to plastics, which are often used once and then thrown away, “one of the simple things we can do is to make a choice not to use them,” she said.

In most towns, groups are working to raise awareness about plastic straws with the goal of eliminating in the community – by engaging with restaurants, for example – not in schools, Tallady said. “I think beginning here is a great place to start,” she told the students. She noted that people can go to the Care For The Cape and Islands website, careforthecapeandislands.org, and sign a pledge to give up plastic straws.

While the students hope to eventually take their campaign beyond the schools and into the community, the folks who run the district's food service have already taken steps to realize their goal. In an email, food services director Garth Petraca said after Chatham Elementary School students inquired about switching to paper straws earlier this school year, he looked into the cost and found that paper straws are three times more expensive than plastic straws. Rather than switch, he decided to let the current supply of plastic straws throughout the district run out and not purchase more “as the students do not really need them to begin with.”

Plastic straws are a serious pollution problem, but in reality, they're only a tiny part of the overall problem with plastic pollution. Remember those 8.3 billion plastic straws Bloomberg said are mucking up marine waters around the world? That's only .03 percent of the estimated eight million metric tons that end up in the ocean annually, the magazine reported.