September 2018

Strawless Summer

Author: Justin Jarrett

There’s no shortage of evidence that single-use plastics have a way of finding their way into our waterways, where they harm marine life, but some people seem reluctant to recognize the problem unless they see it for themselves.

Well, Michelle Meissen has.

Meissen is an avid scuba diver, so she’s well aware of the disturbing amount of trash lurking below the water’s surface, and she has made it her personal mission to try to turn the tide. In 2016, she founded the Palmetto Ocean Conservancy, a local non-profit dedicated to preserving the environment and protecting endangered species.

Meissen and her organization helped lead the successful movement to ban single-use plastic bags in Beaufort County, and now she has set her sights on limiting the number of oil-based plastic straws going into our landfills, and too often our creeks, rivers, and oceans.

It’s estimated that 7.5 percent of the plastic polluting the environment comes from straws and stirrers, and a recent report by the World Economic Forum projected that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans, by volume, than fish.

“Sit at Starbucks for one hour, or at a resort, and count the straws,” Meissen says. “Sit at the Tiki Hut and see how many stirrers go in all those drinks. It accumulates, and you’re talking about non-recyclable items that are oil-based.”

That’s why Meissen launched her campaign, and Lowcountry Indivisible has teamed up with other environmental groups on a similar “Skip The Straw” campaign to try to make the Lowcountry part of the solution rather than the problem.

And they’re having success. Meissen has commitments from more than 100 partners throughout Beaufort County, including three of the larger resorts on Hilton Head Island: the Westin, Sonesta, and Marriott, and the SERG Restaurant Group.

Some restaurants have already transitioned to biodegradable straws such as corn-based or paper alternatives, which typically cost about four times as much as plastic straws, while others have committed to doing so when their existing stock is depleted or offering straws only on-demand. All of the above reduce usage, which is the ultimate goal.

“I’m not taking any straws away,” Meissen said. “The campaign is not about eliminating all straws; it’s about transferring over to a biodegradable or reusable alternative.”

The SERG group is trying various strategies at its different restaurants—testing a pasta straw at Giusseppi’s Pizza and Pasta House, trying paper straws at The Lodge, and offering straws only on-demand at all properties.

“We’ve made an effort to roll out the plan across the board,” SERG director of operations Alan Wolf said. “The demographics vary dramatically across our restaurants, so we’ve had to consider different approaches.”

The changes have been especially successful at Skull Creek Boathouse, Wolf said, thanks to strong buy-in from the staff, who have printed materials encouraging customers to skip the straw.

While eliminating straws altogether would be a dream for a restaurant’s bottom line, Wolf said restaurateurs have to balance the desire to reduce waste and cost with customer expectations.

The local movement has been aided by the issue gaining steam nationwide. Starbucks is phasing out all plastic straws by 2020 and replacing them with recyclable lids, Disney announced it will eliminate single-use plastic straws and stirrers at all locations worldwide by mid-2019; several airlines and hotel chains have made similar commitments, and some cities and states are considering legislation to ban single-use plastic straws.

Of course, any change to the status quo is bound to come with some pushback. Meissen has been taken aback by some of the heated reactions to the movement locally, but she’s happy to see the issue at the forefront.

“Negative attention or not, everybody’s talking about it and everybody’s thinking about it, and that’s what you want,” she said. “Every time they go to a restaurant or a bar, they’re thinking about it.”
It seems to be working that way for Wolf, who recently started drinking from a refillable metal water bottle throughout the day in an effort to reduce his own use of single-use plastic products. “I think the effect that it has on the psyche is probably the most important,” he said, “because it makes us look at every other piece of plastic more critically.”

That’s precisely the kind of incremental change Meissen and other advocates are hoping to achieve. “I just want people to be aware,” Meissen said. Everybody has the right to choose. However, I think when you’re dealing with an oil-based straw that’s only being used once and then it’s harming the environment, it should be an easy choice. We love where we live and love being able to walk on the beach and not be infested with too much trash.”

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