The last straw

West Tisbury School students set out to eliminate plastic straws on the Vineyard.

Top left, Ali Marcus, Graham Stearns, Maxwell Suman, and Ingrid Moore. Bottom left, Emmett Athearn, Theo Fairchild-Coppoletti, Hardy Eville, and Jasper Ralph. — Lily Cowper

Straw Free MV, a group of students-turned-activists from the West Tisbury School, are trying to decrease the amount of straws being passed out at restaurants on Martha’s Vineyard. They have so far linked arms with over 20 business owners, who have agreed to stop giving out straws. A business shows its support for the movement by displaying a Straw Free MV logo sticker at their establishment. Some who display the sticker still make straws available, but they are not given out unless asked for.

When Straw Free first started in 2014, the group crammed into WT School teacher Annemarie Ralph’s tiny classroom and devised a game plan. They learned hard facts about the impact of straws on the environment from an expert from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and watched videos on straws found inside sea animals’ stomachs. Then, they brought that knowledge to the lunch counter.

Some businesses responded positively, immediately put a sticker up, and gave the kids free pizza. At the Black Dog, they were greeted with, “Oh yeah, we’ve been waiting for you!”

Most sells weren’t that easy. Some restaurants said no. According to the students, Blissed Out was worried it would “kill their business,” since they mainly sell smoothies. “Blissed Out was mega no,” Ingrid Moore, one of the students, said. Other restaurants didn’t respond to them, or said no because they were too busy.

“They probably don’t want to lose money, they don’t want people to not go there because they don’t give out straws,” Jasper Ralph, another group member, said. “Also, they’re probably just so used to giving out straws, they don’t want to be bothered.”

“I think once restaurants realize [not giving out straws] is better for them, they will do it,” Ms. Ralph said. The students educate the businesses about both the environmental and monetary cost of plastic straw waste. And the conversation heats up when the kids begin talking about the harmful effects of straws.

“Birds and fish think that [plastics] are food and then eat the plastic, then it hurts them because they can’t digest it,” Jasper Ralph says. They explain that eating plastic makes an animal think it’s full, and then it starves.”

“It’s one of the top 10 items for beach cleanup,” Ingrid adds, “The material is very bad; its manufacturing takes a lot of CO2.”

“You’re only gonna use plastics once,” one student, Ali Marcus, says. “Then throw it away and not even think about it.”

“Yeah!” everyone agrees. They sound like the orphans in “Oliver Twist,” but instead of more food, they’re asking for less waste.

“Plastics never go away,” says Jasper. “It takes a balloon 400 years to degrade, and even then it’s still not gone.”

The students point out that the issue is more prevalent here because we are surrounded by ocean, thus the chances of birds and fish consuming straws are much higher. “Every kid here has been to the beach,” Ms. Ralph said. “And every kid has seen trash on the beach.”

Prior to coming to the Vineyard, Ms. Ralph initiated a “Straw Free Sunset” program in Los Angeles. Students asked restaurants on Sunset Boulevard to stop providing straws. The program was a success, the difference being that many of Annemarie’s students in L.A. had never been to the beach. “So we went on a field trip to the beach, and they saw the trash,” she said. “Our beaches are pretty pristine here, compared to L.A.” But the pollution is exacerbated in the warm weather. With the influx of crowds each summer, increased car traffic, hundreds of catered events, and more straw-seeking customers, our pollution statistics skyrocket. “It’s especially bad in the summer because people like cold drinks,” one student, Sarah Hartenstine said.

From left, Ali Marcus, Emmett Athearn, Ingrid Moore, Theo Fairchild-Coppoletti, Annemarie Ralph, and Hardy Eville.

Trying to understand the case for straws, Sarah said, “I understand why people want a straw, because iced drinks can be difficult to drink without them, and it is easier when you’re on the go.”

To which Ali countered, “You could bring your own straw.” Everyone agreed; you can buy a metal or plastic straw and carry it around with you. “Or you can drink without a straw,” someone said. Ms. Ralph suggested a slight upcharge if the customer would like a straw.

Former Florida Governor and Senator Bob Graham recently reached out to Ms. Ralph about featuring Straw Free MV in his book, “America, the Owner’s Manual” about civic engagement, co-authored by Chris Hand. This spring, he will meet with the students. Previous editions of the book have been used in secondary schools and colleges.

Though they have certainly gotten the word and their purple and white logo out to the people, the students plan to make the rounds again this spring to seasonal businesses before summer kicks in, and hope to add some year-round partners to their list in the meantime. “Year-round places have probably seen us five times,” Ms. Ralph said, “and if they still don’t have a sticker, that’s pretty bad.”

Ingrid Moore, Nick Cowan, Hardy Eville, Graham Stearns, and Annemarie Ralph. Bottom left, Ali Marcus, Sarah Hartenstine, and Jasper Ralph. —Lily Cowper