Three hundred. That's how many plastic straws members of the Charleston Surfrider Foundation picked up in one hour during their Folly Beach sweep in May. "Because straws can't be recycled in Charleston County, they're just going into the ocean or landfills," says Kate Dittloff, Surfrider Charleston Chapter Chair. "We've found that on average we use 1.6 straws per person per day. That's 634,000 straws used in Charleston County alone. That's an incredible number."
Incredible because of the damage those straws can do. While the small cylinders may make up just a fraction of ocean pollution, the havoc they can wreak is hard to measure. As National Geographic reported in April, "their size makes them one of the most insidious polluters because they entangle marine animals and are consumed by fish." The most haunting example is a 2015 video that went viral showing a scientist struggling to remove a plastic straw from a sea turtle's nose.
And it's a number Dittloff, along with the Charleston Restaurant Association, Charleston Bartender's Guild, 5 Gyres Institute, and Lonely Whale Foundation, want to reduce. So they're doing something about it. On June 20, the organizations are launching the Strawless Summer Challenge, a call to all area bars and restaurants to stop using plastic straws through the month of August.
"We're essentially telling people to stop sucking," Dittloff says.
That's no easy task, especially in a city with an economy that runs on cocktails bought by a society conditioned to, well, suck. Fortunately, the challenge has an important advocate, US Bartender's Guild: Charleston Chapter Vice President and Macintosh bartender Megan Deschaine.
"We live in a city that is wholly dependent on our natural ecosytem for the tourism industry and the natural industry. That means we have to be stewards of a healthy environment," says Deschaine.
The bartender, who's well known in the Charleston F&B industry for both her cocktail prowess and leadership abilities, first got wise to bar pollutants at a Portland bartending conference. "I would say that I've always been an environmentally-minded person, but a few years ago I was at a conference that was all about greening the bar," she says. "Ever since then, it's weighed heavy on my mind." So much so that in April, at a cocktail bar seminar event, she spoke to a local group about the need to be ecologically-minded. "We talked a lot about water waste and plastic waste, but mostly it was about straws," Deschaine says.
The trick is, straw use at restaurants isn't as black and white as simply saying, "Stop using them."
Deschaine's seen this first hand at the Macintosh where she runs the bar. She nixed straws in the restaurant two months ago and for the most part customers have responded well. "When servers have an opportunity to explain why, guests have been overwhelmingly positive," she says. But it's not always the same case behind the bar. "We still have our caddy filled with straws. So even when I serve a guest a drink without one, I often see guests reach for a straw." Her quandry has been what to do next. "Do I bridge this conversation? How can I transmit the message without being critical?" Deschaine is still wrestling with answers, but hopes to possibly put a one-liner on Macintosh menus to help: "We care about our oceans. Straws are by request."
Of course printing a whole new set of menus isn't an option for every restaurant in town, even if the cost of nixing straws could be financially beneficial. But even with the challenges of making the straw-less sell to businesses, Deschaine and her Strawless Summer cohorts remain optimistic.
"I've had lots of conversations with my peers," says Deschaine. "I would say all of the ocean-friendly certified restaurants are on board."
And who knows, maybe Charleston could become a straw-free city. Environmental groups have had big wins this year, namely with Folly Beach and Isle of Palms placing restrictions on the sale and distribution of plastic bags and certain disposable containers. The trend is taking off nationwide, too. Berkeley, Calif. put forth a proposal to City Council to ban disposable plastic straws at bars, restaurants, and coffee shops in late May. Strawless Summer is a step in the same direction.
Deschaine and Dittloff think it can happen. As Deschaine says, "Fortunately we live in a world where people do have an open mind, who understand that we are a part of a bigger picture, and they're game."
Strawless Summer Challenge kicks off June 20 at Redux at 5 p.m. Interested bars and restaurants can sign up by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.