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Be Straw Free! Debrief with Sondra and Emily

In February’s Dirt, Sondra Grewe deGraft-Johnson and Emily Selover invited us to join in their pledge to be straw-free for the whole month of March. Did you participate? Here they debrief the challenge and share future goals for the #StrawFreeNPDC movement and the larger sustainability movement!

Sondra: You’d think that eliminating a small piece of plastic from your daily life would be pretty easy, but actually it’s not as easy as you might think. In March, I joined the NPDC challenge to use zero plastic straws for the entire month (and hopefully, beyond). I knew it would pose a bit of challenge for me, since I eat out a few times per week and those occasions are generally where straws come into my life. In fact, the amount and frequency of people eating out and eating on the go has really been on the rise over the past 10 or 20 years, and has contributed to single-use plastic being so pervasive in our society.

Most of the month was a success. I would say that during a regular month, before attempting to reduce my straw usage, I probably would have used about 12 straws in a month. This month, I would say I encountered about 3. Being proactive and speaking up about my wish to not have a straw worked well in places where you take your food to go. I actually bought a pack of paper straws for desperate instances where having a straw avoids major inconveniences (Hello, I had to try a Playa Bowls smoothie when they first opened!). In sit down restaurants it could be more tricky, as sometimes they bring water with a straw IN IT to you BEFORE you have a chance to say anything. But overall the majority of March went well.

At the end of March I traveled to see my family in Kentucky. On the way home from the airport, we stopped at a family-owned Italian restaurant and were placed with the friendliest of servers. When I explained my straw situation and shared my awareness with him, I thought I had finally hit the jackpot of servers. He was so excited! He agreed that he was trying to reduce his plastic use as well.

My first round of water was great – no straw, no problem. But, when he brought us refills, guess what was in the glass?!! A big, ugly straw. And in those situations, what can you do? The straw has already been used. Here I am, trying to be an example to others and yet, as I sipped my drink, I felt like the biggest hypocrite. But I realized when you are dining out, you have so little control.

So lesson one from this month – try to eat out less. Thus, more control. Lesson two – don’t be hard on yourself! Celebrate the good you are doing, don’t dwell on the negatives. I can be thankful for every opportunity I have to share my straw mission with other people, like in the case of the server in Kentucky, who really liked the idea. Lesson three- Try to increase awareness of our own habits that get us in trouble. The server was beyond friendly, he had all the Southern hospitality you would expect, but his habits were so ingrained and sometimes human error comes in to play. Those habits and routines we all have are what we each need to challenge day after day until they disappear. We have to train ourselves to make new, better habits! I’m trying to be more conscious of all my plastic consumption and think about what I can do to reduce it in every place and in every way.

Emily: Yes! To Sondra’s point about having less control–you’re relying on other people’s memory and like she said, servers have so many things to keep track of! I had a similar experience. I was out with a couple friends and we all made a point to tell the server, “no straws please”. “Oh yeah! I like that! Have you guys seen the turtle video?”, the server asked, referring to a very graphic viral video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nostril. We all agreed about how horrible it was, and the server even noted that he was a vegan. But when the waters arrived at the table…they all had straws!!!

Giving straws to patrons in restaurants is a customary practice in many places (I realized this once I started paying attention). So customary that it seems to be second nature and servers do it completely out of habit, even when we request otherwise AND have full conversations about it with them! And who can blame them? They have to be on top of so many details at any given time! When we were debriefing this experience, I realized that perhaps we need to take bigger action than just asking for a strawless drink. Perhaps it would be more effective to speak to the owners and managers directly about shifting their establishment’s straw policy. Maybe if servers asked first, “would you like a straw?” more people would say ‘no thanks’ and we would eliminate the issue of getting a straw we did not want before even having the chance to deny it. It would be a win-win for everyone, not only on the environmental front, but also, what owner doesn’t want to save some money by eliminating a cost that’s often unnecessary?

I actually did a bit of research on this and found a statistic from Ardvark (a paper straw company who advocates that restaurants provide straws only on request). They found that, restaurants “that offer straws on demand reduce straw consumption by 40%, diminishing the increased cost of switching to paper straws and allowing restaurants to save money while saving the planet.” Basically, they’re advocating that not only should restaurants only offer straws upon request, but when they do offer straws, they should be paper ones. I like that! The way I see it, as soon as restaurant runs out of their last plastic straw, they should be restocking in paper straws only.

I’ve been getting really fired up about beginning a grassroots campaign in my community to get restaurants to be more straw aware! They could even display signs with their straw policy and why they have it, to spread even more awareness. Hey Dirt Reader, Do you know restaurant owners in your local community? Would you be comfortable speaking up to your local business association or chamber of commerce about a new local straw policy? Who’s with me!?

Sondra and Emily: Here’s what we can take away from all this: We can’t despair and we can’t give up, despite how discouraging it can be to see a straw in your own or someone else’s glass. We have to remember it’s a process and it starts with all of us educating others! Even just telling those closest to us can start the trend. Sondra’s husband Kobi has been declining straws in her company and we can only hope he is doing it when he’s at work as well. Emily’s friends are all afraid [in a good way :P] to even say the word ‘straw’ around her. In addition, we have to get back to the motto of our childhood – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. It’s a topic for a whole other time, but we’ll leave you with these hope-inducing ideas from Green Peace Australia for even more R’s than just the classic three. On that note, Happy Earth Day to all and we hope you’ll continue on this straw free journey with us!

Did you say no to straws during the month of March? How’d it go? We’d love to hear your experiences!!!