Interview: Reducing Waste, Community Involvement, and Why You Should Ditch Plastic Straws

Plastic straws, as small and commonplace as they are, have become a point of heated debate in recent years. You’ve almost certainly heard that you “should” stop using them, and that some cities have banned them, but do you know why? I figured it was due to hurting animals when they aren’t disposed of properly. Or maybe it was because they were typically thrown out instead of being recycled.

I hadn’t looked into it too much, but my sister Bethanie started bringing it up at family get-togethers, pointedly asking us to not get straws unless we really needed one, and showing us the cool reusable options she carried in her bag. Even as adults, my siblings and I love to rib on each other, so all we have to do to get Bethanie’s goat now is to talk flippantly about wasting plastic straws while eating out. Or pretend to do so in her presence … As she’s kept us in line, I’ve also learned about her involvement with her local community environmental group, Eco-Action Arlington of Arlington Virginia, and I loved her passion for the work she was doing. You can’t tease someone about being this awesome and involved!

In time, her voice became one of my influences for starting my quest for a greener lifestyle (and indeed, for this blog!). So of course, I had to ask her to share more about Eco-Action Arlington here, as well as more about plastic straws and her personal path to green living. She shares some great ways to green up your life too, so enjoy!

Hi, Bethanie! Can you tell me about the mission of Eco-Action Arlington, the program you work with?

Here’s our mission: EcoAction Arlington protects and improves water, air, and open spaces in the Arlington community and nearby areas by promoting stewardship of our natural resources and connecting all citizens to practical solutions that achieve a sustainable lifestyle. Check out www.ecoactionarlington.org to learn more or get involved!

Why are you passionate about this mission?

I grew up with many opportunities to be in nature and to experience various environments in the U.S., from muggy and lush Georgia to dry and expansive Utah desert landscapes. At home, I would find joy in experiencing the minor flooding of the grass and the snaking of the water as it went downhill behind my house. But now, we have been told that experiences like the flash floods that occurred on July 8 in Arlington County and other neighboring counties will become more prevalent as a result of climate change.

What inspired you to take your concern for the environment and move into a position of action?

I am motivated because we are told that there are choices that we can make to slow the climate change before it is too late and we cause even more irreversible change. Collectively, individuals can make a change for our communities that will improve our world’s health. In my community, I Googled and found EcoAction Arlington online. Specifically, the R4 Action Group meets monthly to discuss and work on projects related to waste management and reduction in our communities and schools. Although the non-profit organization also has many opportunities that I also attend and appreciate (like park cleanups and invasive plant removal),  there are also lectures on intriguing topics and happy hours to connect with other like-minded people. For over a year, I solely focused my time and energy in the R4 Action Group, where I could make ongoing relationships and work with a team to create an impact.

How do straws and other small plastic items endanger the environment?

These items are often too small to make it into the recycling process. For example, straws fall from the machinery in the recycling facilities and don’t end up being recycled. Small plastic items are also very light and may blow out of our cars, public trash containers, and away from our lunch tables outside. They then end up in our water drains, traveling to our creeks, rivers, and oceans. Along the way they often end up being consumed by creatures, as they may appear like food. Many animals are dying as a result. Additionally, the plastic items leach toxins that harm not only animals, but also humans, as we consume fish that have eaten plastics directly or indirectly, from their own food chain.

What do you think is an ideal way for individuals to stop using plastic straws if they’re strongly accustomed to using them?

I would recommend that people take a week to record all the plastic (especially single-use items) that they use. Then, do a quick online search to identify replacements for these items that are reusable. Many of these replacements are items that you already own or can be cheaply purchased. Every other week or so, make a change in your habits to phase out these single-use items.

What do you find most helpful in encouraging businesses to drop straw usage?

From my observations and experience, it is most helpful to restaurants to make a switch in their straw usage if they understand how it can benefit their business financially, and also if they have connections to restaurants that have made this change and have had positive results. A local organization that created a program where restaurants committed to give out straws by request or not at all had success in part because the driver of the program was a beloved local chain that lived the principles that it was promoting.

What are some common substitutions people can turn to in the place of plastic straws?

In place of plastic straws, restaurants can use paper straws, as they break down and cause much less harm to humans using them and creatures that may consume them. There also are several reusable options available for sit-down restaurants like bamboo, stainless steel, and hay straws. Individuals can use no straw at all (unless they have a disability that requires them to use one), the highly recyclable and cheap stainless steel straw, or the trendy The Last Straw that can clip to your keys or backpack and folds up into a small size.

Do you have any other ideas for small, simple changes people can make that will let them live greener while on a tight budget?

Having spoken to many restaurant managers in Arlington County, it is clear that budget is a concern, especially because on average plastic straws cost 1/100 of the cost of paper straws, for example. Or perhaps they still have a large stock of plastic straws. One of the key practices that the R4 Action Group promotes is reducing our use of items, and a way we can apply this to restaurants becoming more green is for restaurants to provide their plastic straws (and other types) by request only. Many programs around the country have seen that fewer straws are requested by customers. Then, when restaurants do switch over to paper straws (or other types), not every customer is asking for one, so money is saved. For individuals, if they don’t have to use a straw for medical reasons, it’s free to say no to the straw. But, if they prefer one, people can also purchase a stainless steel straw and a cleaning rod for under $5.

Other switches to a greener life can be inexpensive as well. For example, save your glass jars from tomato sauce, jams and pickles (and others) to store leftovers like quick-pickled red onions (my fave). Take a table setting to work and use that instead of picking up plastic utensils from the work kitchen. I have a knife, fork, spoon, bowl, plate, and mug in my desk. I carry a set of bamboo utensils with me in my bag or purse every day so I am ready for anything. Another choice that is healthier and cheaper for you is to eat more whole foods like vegetables and fruits and purchase fewer processed foods. A bunch of carrots or a head of cauliflower can go a longer way than an over salted and processed bag of chips that would convince me to eat it within a sitting or two. Roasted cauliflower with a dressing and fresh herbs is a at favorite dinner but I also love it as a snack! And of course, instead of buying bottled water again and again (that cost adds up over time $$$), pick up a reusable bottle and carry it around. You can even ask your friends, family, or coworkers–they most likely have an extra water bottle that they’ve never used. Even something as simple as buying yeast in a jar rather than packets can save you money! I found some fabulous guiding questions online to help us to change our thinking about how we live and how we use things, and I have examples are all changes I’ve made myself.

Before buying something new, ask:

Can I make what I’m using last a little bit longer?

Ex: I often had lots of bubbly body wash left over even after I had finished scrubbing my body. Now, if I use body wash I use less to start and add more to my towel as needed.

Do I have to buy this brand new? Can I buy it second-hand?

Ex: I wanted to get jars to hold the loose leaf herbs that I started to purchase when I moved close by a store that had bulk items. I didn’t feel that I needed a complete set that all matched and such. I had joined my local Buy Nothing group on Facebook and someone had posted a picture of small jars (similar to baby food jars) that she wanted to give away. I was able to get these items for free instead of purchasing a new set.

Is there anything I can do to repair it?

Ex: The stitching on the aprons at the café where I worked had come undone on at least ten aprons, leaving the staff with only a small supply to use, so they often had to get washed in order to have a clean one to wear. My mother-in-law knows how to sew and I asked her to teach me how to mend these items. We were then able to share them with the staff and there are many clean aprons now on hand!

Can I use anything else in its place?

Ex: I participate in a book club that meets monthly. I am not a re-reader, and the other people in my group have a large appetite for experiencing a new book, so we focus on choosing books that aren’t the latest and greatest so we can get the books from the library without a significant wait. This also helps because we don’t always plan ahead so the shorter wait time is very helpful!

Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, Bethanie! It’s great to hear examples of how making small changes quickly turn to habits and make a great impact on our environment! It’s a growth process, not “all or nothing.”

For readers, share below if this interview gave you any ideas of new tweaks you can make to your usual routine. Or tell us how programs in your community are striving to put greener practices into place! And be sure to check out www.ecoactionarlington.org for how to get involved locally or to draw on inspiration for your own community! For additional information on the impact of straws on marine environments or how they add to the microplastic crisis, check out those links.

Also, remember that each disposable item that we use, sometimes for just a few minutes, requires energy to produce, and it typically comes from a non-renewable source. When we replace disposable items with long-lived alternatives, it’s an investment in the future of our environment. Start making one such choice this week. Maybe you’ll pick up a steel or silicone straw for when you go out to eat, or simply pass on using the offered plastic option. Maybe you’ll start packing your lunch in a storage container from home instead of plastic baggies. Whatever idea stuck out to you from this interview, pick it up and run with it now!

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