West Tisbury students launch campaign to eliminate plastic straws

Sixth and seventh graders created Straw Free MV to reduce plastic pollution.

Straw Free MV: top left, Ali Marcus, Ingrid Moore, Theo Fairchild-Coppoletti, Anita Smith, bottom left, Katie Goldsmith; Hardy Eville, and Graham Stearns. Missing from photo: Emmett Favreau. — Courtesy of Straw Free MV

During the 2014-15 school year, sixth and seventh graders at the West Tisbury School were disturbed to learn that the United States uses enough plastic straws to wrap around the Earth’s circumference two and a half times a day, according to statistics from Last Plastic Straw, an organization based in California focused on plastic pollution in our oceans.

Five hundred million straws are used once and then thrown away each day in this country, according to the organization. That’s a total of 175 billion straws a year that are going into landfills and littering our oceans.

Spurred by those statistics, and with the guidance of their enrichment teacher Annemarie Ralph, the students created Straw Free MV as part of their regular curriculum. “Our goal is to reduce and completely eliminate the use of straws altogether,” West Tisbury student Ali Marcus, 12, said in an interview with The Times.

The goal of Straw Free MV is to eliminate straws from the Island through education, beach cleanups, and the cooperation of restaurants. Last year, seventh grade students ordered eco-friendly paper straws through Aardvark Straws to present as a substitute to plastic straws for restaurants. Students worked with Anita Smith, an assistant at the West Tisbury School, to create a logo and stickers for the cause. They launched a Facebook page and then wrote to 30 different restaurants around the Island, urging them to stop or at least reduce the use of plastic straws.

This year, seven sixth graders decided to continue Straw Free MV. They revamped the Facebook page from the previous year, and created an Instagram account. The sixth graders had T shirts made with the group’s logo, which Peter Hall of Broadway Screen Printing donated to the cause. They used what Ms. Ralph called “guerrilla tactics.” They went onto Instagram and hashtagged #strawfreeMV every time they saw a picture from an Island restaurant that had a straw in it.

“It’s empowering for them to get out there and see that they can make a difference. Even something little like a straw, it’s actually a big deal,” Ms. Ralph said.

They set out across the Island to visit different restaurants and make their case. Ms. Ralph let them do the talking. Some of the places they visited were Waterside Market, Blissed Out, Fella’s on Union, Rocco’s, Scottish Bakehouse, Orange Peel Bakery, 7a Foods, Mocha Mott’s, John’s Fish Market, and Porto Pizza.

“It felt good to help, to go around and make a difference, and make the Island a better place,” Ali said.

Porto Pizza in Vineyard Haven posted a photo of an empty jar of straws on Straw Free MV’s Facebook page shortly after their visit with a message that said: “I spoke to upper management, and this is how many straws we will be offering from now forward.”

Even if restaurants wouldn’t completely remove plastic straws, the students urged them to only give straws to customers who asked for them. Many of the restaurants displayed the Straw Free MV sticker on their doors or windows.

“To have people agree with them and learn from them at such a young age is empowering,” Ms. Ralph said.

Ms. Ralph said that Straw Free MV was valuable to the students not only because it empowered them, but also because they served as a remedy to a big problem. The students had the opportunity to present an idea to businesses that would save both money and the environment. They learned that there are consequences to their actions, and saw the tremendous impact seemingly small things like straws have on the environment.

“I learned you have to think about everything you’re doing, because everything has a cause and effect, even a little straw,” Ali said.