Earth Day effort exposes plastic straws as a scourge
Straws are among the pieces of plastic that litter Chicago beaches, cleanups have found.
Straws are convenient for stirring cocktails or coffee, slurping down sodas and popping holes in juice boxes. But the small pieces of plastic can add up to a big problem for the environment.
In honor of Earth Day on Saturday, Shedd Aquarium is launching the “Shedd the straw” campaign to raise awareness that single-use plastic straws litter beaches, pollute lakes and rivers, and harm the animals that live in them.
The effort is one of several conservation activities planned across the Chicago area this weekend, including cleaning up neighborhood parks, vacant lots and the viaducts below The 606 trail.
Straws are among the many items — including water bottles, food wrappers and cigarette butts — that pollute Chicago’s beaches and waterways.
About 87 percent of the more than 40,000 pounds of trash picked up at beaches by volunteers last year throughout the Great Lakes region was plastic, according to the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
Cleanup events by residents help build a culture of care and stewardship that can continue past Earth Day, said Stephanie Smith, the alliance’s vice president of operations. The group has organized Adopt-a-Beach cleanups for Saturday, as it does year-round, to help keep the shoreline healthy and litter-free. Also on Saturday, Friends of the Chicago River is pitching in to clean up the river on a canoe trip in Evanston.
“Our individual practices can shift as a result of being involved,” Smith said, such as using reusable water bottles or requesting drinks without straws.
At two cleanups last year, Shedd volunteers collected more than 400 plastic straws and stirrers at 12th Street and 63rd Street beaches in Chicago. Straws, which are made of a petroleum byproduct called polypropylene mixed with colorants and plasticizers, are not biodegradable, according to the Shedd.
“We use (a straw) for a short period, and it’s out of our hands and ends up in a landfill or as litter,” said Jaclyn Wegner, Shedd’s manager of conservation partnerships and programs. “Looking at how we can change our daily habits to protect our animals around us is a priority.”
The aquarium, which no longer uses plastic straws or lids for beverages at its cafes, is urging people to turn down straws at restaurants and switch to reusable glass or metal straws or biodegradable alternatives like paper straws.
Shedd has partnered with a dozen Chicago-area restaurants to go straw-free Saturday. At the Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, that policy will continue beyond Earth Day, said co-owner Sarah Stegner. The restaurant will no longer offer plastic straws but will provide paper straws to customers upon request, she said. On the back of the card listing the restaurant’s dining specials will be an explanation of the Shedd’s initiative.
The aquarium approached the restaurant about participating in the campaign, which is similar to other initiatives across the country. An estimated 500 million disposable straws are used daily in the U.S., a figure provided by nonprofit recycler Eco-Cycle based on information from straw manufacturers.
“The numbers are staggering,” Stegner said. “If I can make a little difference, I want to do that.”
Stegner said she saw a viral YouTube video of a sea turtle getting a plastic straw extracted from its nostril, showing the impact straws can have on marine life.
“It’s something we just don’t think about,” she said. “Now we’ve been made aware of it, we have to do the right thing.”