Written By: Robert Cocuzzo

Nantucket’s campaign against single-use plastics takes a big gulp this June.

Every year in the United States, around 182 billion drinking straws are discarded, many of which end up in landfills and floating around the ocean. With each straw taking up to two centuries to disintegrate, this bewildering mass of single-use plastic has contributed to an environmental disaster that’s plaguing marine life in Nantucket’s waters and beyond.

One only needs to watch the gut-wrenching footage of marine biologists pulling a straw out of the nose of a leatherback sea turtle with a pair of pliers to witness just how devastating these seemingly benign pieces of plastic are. Experts say that if no action is taken, in thirty years there will be more straws and other pieces of single-use plastic in the ocean than there will be fish.

This year, Nantucket has joined a national movement to curb and ultimately eliminate the use of plastic straws on the island. The Stop the Straw initiative was launched this winter by #ACKlocal, a newly founded Town platform dedicated to environmental causes. Forging a partnership between ReMain Nantucket and the Maria Mitchell Association, #ACKLocal is encouraging restaurants and vendors to become Plastic Straw Free establishments. To do so, they must pledge to replace plastic straws and stirrers with biodegradable ones or simply do away with them entirely.

“We have thirty businesses signed on to date, which is a great start—but we are really hoping to get 100 percent support within the next two years,” says selectperson Rita Higgins, who helped spearhead #ACKLocal and the Stop the Straw initiative. “My hope is to achieve that without taking the heavy-handed ban approach. I feel that getting the buy-in without a ban is an indication that people are thinking about single-use plastics, our environment and the simple choices they can make to lighten our impact on the island.”

Nantucket has a strong track record of environmental leadership in Massachusetts. In August 2016, the island banned plastic bags and other forms of plastic packaging. The year before that, Nantucketers voted to ban helium balloons, which were also littering the ocean. But straws have slipped through the nets of regulation. “Straws are one of those seemingly innocuous items that when you contemplate their necessity in light of the impact they have on the planet, you realize how non-essential and unnecessary they are,” says Higgins. “The more you learn about the devastation plastic is having on our marine life, oceans, food system and water quality, the more carefully you examine the plastic you use in your daily life.”

To help illustrate this devastation, ReMain Nantucket has arranged a showing of STRAWS, an award-winning documentary by Linda Booker, on June 4th at the Dreamland Theater. The film explores the history of straws, which traces back to biblical times when they were first created by Sumerians in 3,000 BC to drink chunky fermented beer.

Fast forward to 1888 in Portage County, Ohio where Marvin Chester Stone patented the first paper drinking straw to slurp mint juleps. Then came the rise of fast food in the 1960s and the plastic straw emerged as a cheap and easy-to-manufacture product that came with every Happy Meal, Slurpee, juice box, frappe, iced coffee and soda. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, and led to today’s plastic predicament.

Wendy Schmidt is responsible for bringing the film and the filmmaker, Linda Booker, to the island this June. As the founder of ReMain, Schmidt has pushed for better environmental practices on Nantucket. “Historically, island communities have a strong incentive to manage their natural resources wisely and to pay close attention to their degradation, whatever the threat. You could say their life depends on it,” Schmidt says. “Eliminating plastic drinking straws here on Nantucket is the first step on a journey to be accountable for our everyday plastic waste.”

Along with her work with ReMain and the #ACKLocal initiative, Schmidt has taken the fight against single-use plastics far beyond Nantucket’s shores through 11th Hour Racing, a sailing team that works with the sailing community and maritime industries to advance solutions and practices to protect the ocean. The team is currently competing in The Volvo Ocean Race, covering 45,000 nautical miles and giving Schmidt a first-hand look at the dire situations of the ocean.

“Today, oceans around the world are under attack from industrial pollution including a growing avalanche of plastic, especially plastic packaging, where we need innovation to create better systems,” says Schmidt. “There are plastic gyres in every ocean and microplastic found everywhere, ingested by seabirds, fish, and marine mammals, even in the microscopic phytoplankton that are at the bottom of our food chain. Nearly one-third of humanity gets its primary protein from ocean sources, so this is a problem.”

Nantucket is ground zero for witnessing this problem. Approximately three million straws were used on the island last July and August alone. But pending the success of the Stop the Straw campaign, that number could go down dramatically. “Straws are one part of a big picture about reducing our consumption of disposable goods,” says Higgins. “Ultimately, cutting out as much single-use anything is what we need to be working toward in order to reduce overall waste generation.” If we don’t—just like the straw itself—the future of our surrounding waters could really suck.

There are several ways to participate in the Stop the Straw campaign, starting with simply asking your waiter to bring your drink without a straw. To support the campaign monetarily, you can purchase a poster created by local photographer Cary Hazlegrove and Jenshe celebrating the waters surrounding Nantucket. Five percent of sales generated by the “30 Miles Out” poster will go toward Stop the Straw. Order yours here.

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