Andrea Siegel understands how overwhelmed we can feel about meaningfully addressing the world’s growing waste crisis, which is polluting our natural waterways and feeding voracious landfills. So she’s proposing a simple solution that’s hard to reject: Stop using plastic straws. Don’t buy them for home use and don’t ask for them, when possible, in restaurants. Siegel, a 42-year-old social media marketer and mom of two, is a leader of No Straws Please Minneapolis (#nostrawspleasempls), a grass roots volunteer effort that launched this spring to encourage restaurants to stop, or at least limit, their use of non-reusable plastic straws. She explains why this little effort carries a big payoff for Mother Earth.
Q: Why straws?
A: There’s a huge global movement for people to stop using them, because it’s easy. Most people don’t need them. Many organizations are reporting the same statistic: 500 million straws are used every day, then thrown away. With beach cleanups, straws are the 7th largest category of waste, after trash including water bottles, plastic bags and plastic utensils. Because straws are small, they easily escape into streams.
Q: But you offer a caveat.
A: Yes. I don’t want anyone to feel shamed. We understand that a certain percentage of the population is liberated by using a straw. Someone who can’t drink safely from a cup, for example, should always have the option.
Q: What led you to this particular brand of volunteerism?
A: I grew up in Scandia. My dad was a social worker, my mom a teacher. They were very progressive about education and social issues. I see waste as an environmental justice issue. Plus, Jane Goodall was my teenage hero.
Q: How will #nostrawspleasempls get the word out?
A: Our goal this fall is to have our volunteers talk to restaurants about why straws are a problem. We’ll ask, ‘What can we give you to help? A graphic to put on menus? Table tents?’ Change is hard. We want to make it easy.
Q: Will you target chain restaurants?
A: We’d love to approach the chains. But there’s already a lot of pressure nationally on the chains. Starbucks has promised to ban straws by 2020, for example. American Airlines, Marriott Hotels and Disney say they’re also onboard with the straw ban. Our effort will be more around local coffee shops and locally owned restaurants.
Q: Why can’t we recycle plastic straws?
A: It’s because of the type of plastic and also a straw’s size. With a lot of conveyors and machines, they’d just fall through and contaminate other recyclables. As a Hennepin County Master Recycler, I’ve learned that plastics are really complicated.
Q: What’s with our straw obsession, anyway? Not pointing any fingers, but have we become an iced white chocolate mocha-obsessed culture?
A: We’ve just been conditioned to use straws. They get put in everything. It’s not just kids. I went to a coffee shop all the time when my kids were little. They wanted something, too, and it came with a lid and a straw.
Q: Speaking of your kids, how are they responding to Mom’s activism?
A: I volunteer in their lunch room, digging out recycling. The engineers know me as the waste lady. My kids love it. Actually, that was just the start of the embarrassment. I don’t do my 10-year-old son’s lunch period anymore. But my 8-year-old daughter is excited to have me in her lunch. She picks up trash.
Q: Do you find that kids are generally more invested in environmental issues than are their parents?
A: The great thing about social media is that it lets kids who are doing things bubble up to the top. There’s definitely a lot of awareness among young people. Many high schools have Green Teams, focused on cleaning up the environment and addressing climate change. Some schools have organics recycling. Even my son now agrees that he won’t ask for a lid or a straw when he gets an Icee.
Q: What countries are doing the best work around straw and other plastics bans?
A: Taiwan, the United Kingdom. Australia is super on top of it. You don’t want to be known for dirty beaches. We don’t have any coastline here, but our plastic pollution is just as impactful on our Minnesota waterways as anybody else’s.
Q: So, let’s say we want to practice this. How do we start?
A: Ask for “no straws please” when you order. If you get one, hand it back and say, “No, thank you.” You might also ask, “Have you heard about the movement to get rid of straws? Would you consider a straws-only-on-request policy here?” At home, use ‘em up. It does no good to throw them away.
Q: And then find a better alternative? What might that be?
A: I do prefer no straw, but there are alternatives widely available: Metal, glass, bamboo. My husband and I love smoothies. We have insulated cups that come with reusable straws.
Q: How will you know when you’ve made progress?
A: By the number of restaurants we get who say, “Yes, we will do the upon-request policy.” But I already feel success, because my mother, and my mother-in-law, have switched to reusable straws.