Fourth Grade Takes on Plastic Straws

A fourth-grade initiative at the Montauk School to stop the use of plastic straws there and in the community is worth paying attention to — and bears a lesson for how we should think about our relationship to the environment. 

This winter, the students began sending letters to Montauk food businesses, hoping to persuade their owners or managers to switch from plastic to paper straws. The argument is based on the fact that plastic straws are not generally recycled and it reflects the growing awareness that plastic is among the top-10 kinds of debris entering marine ecosystems around the world. As with bans of single-use plastic bags, curtailing the use of plastic straws is a way to reduce the carbon emission impact of nonessential items. Alternatives include straws made from recyclable paper and compostable versions made from plant-based compounds.

A number of Montauk restaurants, ice cream shops, and takeout places have responded favorably to the students’ pitch. The people at Muse at the End, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, the Surf Lodge, Gosman’s Dock, and others deserve a tip of the hat for being willing to consider switching to paper or, at a minimum, making a plastic straw available on request rather than automatically plonking one into every drink. 

According to activists, there is at least one straw per person per day used in the United States, as many as 500 million by more expansive estimates. Though long-lived in landfills, plastic waste slowly begins to degrade when it hits the oceans, breaking into tiny pieces that can be fatal to marine life, notably endangered sea turtles such as the Kemp’s Ridley, which has been the focus of rescue efforts here and in its southern breeding grounds.

A recent video shows a single cloth microfiber causing the death of a plankton that ingested it; multiply that a billion-fold and the impacts up and down the food chain are beyond belief. Some plastics in water can absorb and concentrate toxic chemicals, including DDT, a banned pesticide that was among the causes of the last century’s precipitous drop in the populations of bald eagles and osprey, among other wildlife. An estimated 150 million tons of plastic waste disappears each year, much of it into the oceans, and it eventually makes its way into everything and everyone who eats seafood. 

As many as 51 trillion particles of micro-plastic are thought to be in the world’s waters today, about 500 times the number of stars in our galaxy. That is a lot of garbage. Montauk’s fourth graders are heroes in our book for doing something about it.