The Last Straw? D.C. greens target single-use plastic in bars, restaurants

WASHINGTON—Viewing a video of scientists extracting a plastic drinking straw lodged in the nostril of an olive ridley sea turtle in Costa Rica broke Emily LeMay’s heart.

But that 2015 image prompted the member of the Sierra Club’s D.C. chapter to shed more than tears. LeMay now shuns plastic straws.

At home and in restaurants, she sips from a reusable stainless steel straw that she ordered online. She is collaborating with the chapter’s Zero Waste Committee to convince city restaurants and bars to curb their reliance on the ubiquitous plastic cylinders.

“Carrying around a stainless steel straw is a talking piece to educate people about why I say no to plastic,” LeMay tells Renewal News. “Plastic straws are disposable and create a staggering amount of waste. When they end up in the environment, they persist for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

Indeed, the teen-age co-founders of One More Generation estimate that the 500 million plastic straws U.S. residents throw away daily could fill 46,000-plus large school buses.

Siblings Olivia and Carter Ries launched a global One Less Straw campaign a year ago as part of One More Generation. Since last November, more than 3,000 citizens from at least 44 countries have signed a pledge that commits them to foregoing single-use, plastic straws for a minimum of 30 days.

Last May, the Georgia-based brother and sister visited with the D.C. Sierra Club chapter to talk about their campaign and how plastic straws, made of the petroleum byproduct polypropylene, are among the top 10 marine debris items.

“They were super-inspirational,””says LeMay, a recycling outreach specialist in Arlington County who heads the chapter’s Straw-Free D.C. Subcommittee.

Plastic is causing monumental pollution problems worldwide and straws are part of that dirty mix. Local volunteers pluck plenty of them from the Potomac and Anacostia watersheds during regular trash cleanups.

LeMay and her colleagues dedicated part of their summer brainstorming with servers and bartenders about education campaigns to reduce straw use. They were pleased that businesses seemed eager to learn more and that a few were already limiting straw use, LeMay says. Others were interested in compostable straws.

Sierrans are now figuring out how to advance their ideas into action. A “straws on request only” pilot is one potential solution.

The chapter also wants businesses to attend a screening of “Straws,” a 30-minute documentary about the downsides of plastic by Linda Booker. Scheduling details are being ironed out.

LeMay, who earned a graduate degree in environmental science at American University two years ago, says she became aware of the long-term persistence of plastics during an undergraduate chemistry course.

“That kind of hit home, too,” she says.

To put her money where her mouth is, LeMay orders extra reusable straws and gives them to her friends at Christmas.

“Some people wear an elaborate costume to protest,” she says. “A stainless steel straw is very subtle and a way to start a conversation. I love talking to bartenders about it.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Zero Waste Committee next meets at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Sierra Club, 50 F St. NW, Washington, D.C. Online registration is required.

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