‘Skip The Straw’ Initiative Comes To Vermillion

Four seconds and 20 minutes. Those are the average times that a plastic coffee stirrer and a disposal straw are in use before they go to the landfill, a waterway, or another eternal resting place, where they will remain as plastic forever.

It’s for this reason that concerned citizens have started a “Skip the Straw” initiative to educate and inspire the public to forego single use straws in favor of re-useable or paper ones or simply no straw at all.

“Plastic is a miracle product and has many important uses,” said Susanne Skyrm, a member of the Living River Group of the Sierra Club and Greening Vermillion, two organizations sponsoring the initiative. “No one is suggesting that we do away with it altogether. But, we must work to change our throw-away mentality. We must be aware of the harm that plastic can cause in the environment, and how that can affect us even here in South Dakota, so far away from the world’s oceans.”

To help get the public excited about skipping the straw – and in an effort to help educate them, the Living River Group of the Sierra Club of South Dakota is hosting a free movie, “Straws,” at its next meeting, Oct. 16, at 7 p.m. in the Kozak Room of the Edith B. Siegrist Public Library. The showing is open to the public and all are welcome to attend.

“Straws” is a documentary that explores the history of straws and includes present day issues that surround our nation’s dependence on single use conveniences. Used once and tossed, billions of non-recyclable plastic straws are used annually winding up in landfills, littering streets and finding their way to oceans. Actor/director Tim Robbins narrates a humorous history of straws, and director Linda Booker interviews marine researchers, artists, citizen activists, and business owners in California, Costa Rica and North Carolina about how it’s possible to make a sea of change, one straw at a time.

In addition, two USD students – Jade Muller-Smit and Divya Neopaney – are organizing a “Straw-Free Day” to take place on Oct. 25 to further raise public awareness about the harm of straws and how easy it is to live without them. On that day, people will be asked to not use straws and to take a pledge to help reduce the use of plastic. The local Sierra Club, Greening Vermillion, and the USD Sustainability Club will be assisting with the Oct. 25 “Straw-Free Day.” Mark your calendars now!

Though plastic straws are not the biggest polluters of the environment (plastic bags are #1), they do cause much harm and are items that are not always needed.

“These items can spend hundreds of years in a landfill,” said Skyrm. “And there is a good chance that these items will get lost and end up in the waterways and the ocean, where they can cause harm to marine animals, which often perceive plastic as food. Most people aren’t aware of this, so by educating the public with a Skip the Straw campaign, we hope people will become more sensitive to the amount of plastic we use and throw away every day and try to reduce that use.”

Unfortunately, the world’s oceans, waterways, and landscapes are inundated with plastic waste, say Sierra Club officials, and the tough thing about plastic is that it never entirely disappears. The Ocean Conservancy ranks straws as among the most frequently collected items at beach cleanups. A recent viral video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw in its nose has helped spark anti-plastic straw campaigns globally and inspired sustainable alternatives.

“[Plastic] just breaks down into smaller and smaller microchips,” said Skyrm. “In the oceans, these tiny bits of plastic are ingested by small organisms that are in turn eaten by larger fish, and so plastic makes its way up the food chain to our plates. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. Plastic straws and bags look a lot like the natural food source for turtles, sea birds, and other marine life. They can’t digest it, so it remains in their systems, often causing slow and agonizing death.”

Nationwide, a few cities and companies have banned the use of plastic straws altogether in an attempt to help with the problem. Locally, volunteer don’t wish for a ban, but they do hope that area residents will make better choices about disposable plastic straws once informed.

This summer, after visiting with members of the local Sierra Club and Greening Vermillion, at least five restaurants adopted a policy of only serving straws when requested (rather than automatically bringing them to the table). These restaurants include: Café Brule, Dakota Brickhouse, Bru2, Silk Road, and Red Steakhouse. Organizers hope other Vermillion businesses will soon join the movement.

Meanwhile, individuals can make a difference by skipping a straw when eating out.

“Ordinary citizens can help by asking servers not to bring a straw with their drink when dining out,” said Skyrm. “There are reusable alternatives, such as metal, glass, bamboo, or paper straws if a person really wants to have a straw with their drink. Citizens can also demand that restaurants use recyclable takeout containers, or better yet, bring their own containers from home for takeaway. Other helpful things include recycling when at all possible and replacing single-use plastic items with sustainable, reusable alternatives. Bring reusable bags when you shop and avoid using plastic sacks.”