Sans Straws


This summer, two campaigns in Beaufort County have targeted a common enemy: the plastic straw.

And though both local initiatives are focusing on convincing area businesses and residents to voluntarily ditch the straws, the movement to ban the drinking devices and other plastics has gained momentum recently: A Facebook video showing researchers removing a plastic straw from the nostril of a sea turtle in Costa Rica went viral; Seattle recently became the first U.S. city to ban single-use plastic straws and cutlery; and California and Hawaii are contemplating statewide regulations. The national movement is using the hashtag #stopsucking.

In the Lowcountry, Palmetto Ocean Conservancy Guardians of the Sea is spearheading one of the efforts against straws and plastics. Led by founder and CEO Michelle Meissen, the group’s “Strawless Summer” campaign kicked off in the spring and has sponsored school programs to help teach area children about the environmental dangers caused by plastics. Meissen and her group also have partnered with about 100 businesses in Beaufort County, mostly on Hilton Head Island, to support the cause. It’s an important one, they say, because straws often end up in waterways, where they injure marine life and affect many Lowcountry industries like shrimping, boating and tourism.

Stacey Whitehead, co-owner of Rock Fish Seafood& Steaks at Bomboras on Hilton Head, said her family’s restaurant is supporting the no-straw push. The restaurant now offers paper straws — and only when customers ask for them.

And while the paper straws are more expensive than plastic, Whitehead says, since making the change in June the restaurant went from using about 6,000 plastic straws a week to about 4,800 paper straws a week.

“I think this has made a lot of people more conscious about it,” Whitehead said. “All of our servers are more conscious about it. It made us, as a business, more aware.”

Whitehead said the restaurant is working to move to biodegradable take-out containers, as well.

Meissen said businesses aren’t being asked to stop using straws completely — unlike the county-wide ban on plastic bags that takes effect Nov. 1. Instead, Meissen said, she’s focused on small steps: Encouraging businesses to provide straws only when customers request them, or offering biodegradable or paper straws to replace single-use plastic ones.

“I wanted to get establishments comfortable with the change at first,” she said. “This is the busiest season for most businesses. I wanted them to try to manage it and figure out, instead of starting it in the winter season. The establishments are taking a huge cost by going from a 1-cent straw to a 5-cent straw.”

Meissen is working with one manufacturer of biodegradable straws to help businesses make the change. It’s worth the extra effort, she said.

“If we don’t do something to eliminate our plastic waste, it’s going to affect our oceans, our environment and our health. We need look long-term,” she said. “You don’t necessarily have to have the straws. It’s an option. If you’re able to cut waste, then you’re helping the environment.”

Rikki Parker, project manager with the Coastal Conservation League, is working with a coalition of several organizations on a similar campaign called “Skip the Straw.”

After seeing success with their push for a local plastic bag ban, the league and other nonprofit groups wanted to use the momentum to help with another problem. Eliminating plastic straws seemed a logical next project, Parker said.

“This is really bringing attention to plastic pollution,” Parker said. “It’s showing how simple changes in daily lives can really have a positive impact on environment.”

Many individuals in the Lowcountry support the cause, as well. Hilton Head resident Caylee Guerrero says the switch makes sense — and that it’s made her more aware of how much waste she generates in her daily life. Guerrero said she planned to purchase and carry straws with her for when she needs them.

“You can just stick them in your purse, and then if you go to Starbucks or got to a restaurant, you don’t have to ask for a straw, or you can just tell the waiter to hold it for you, and then that’s one less straw that will kill a turtle,” Guerrero said.