Down to the Last Straw in Montauk

Fourth graders make pitch to ditch plastics
Fourth graders at the Montauk School are working with some success to convince businesses to switch from plastic straws to paper ones.

Plastic straws rank among the top 10 items in marine debris. In fact, according to the Ocean Conservancy, plastic straws and stirrers were number five on a 2013 Ocean Trash Index. To further illustrate the point, Ecocycle, a company dedicated to “building zero waste communities,” states that Americans use 500 million straws every day, enough to fill 127 school buses each day.

Two fourth-grade teachers at the Montauk School, Chantal Adamcewicz and Kathy Havlik, decided to get their students involved in helping to curb plastic straw waste in the community.

“Greg Donahue of the Oceans Institute at the Montauk Lighthouse Museum, called the school and asked if we would get kids involved in ‘Plastic Oceans,’ an art exhibit they were working on,” said Ms. Adamcewicz, who has taught at the Montauk school for 21 years.

Together with Ms. Havlik, the duo leapt at the opportunity to develop a fourth-grade environmental project. At the beginning of the academic year, students were divided into groups and asked to research how plastic pollution affects the environment. Next, the teachers had their charges write persuasive essays with the goal of convincing Montauk businesses, which use plastic straws in abundance, to switch to paper. The students got the addresses for all targeted businesses from the Chamber of Commerce and sent out approximately 50 letters.

The teachers and students also created a bulletin board — in a hallway for the entire school to view — charting their findings, the issues, businesses contacted, and progress made. Students from all grades continue to stop at the display and ask questions, the teachers said, adding that the issue had really begun to percolate in the minds of all age groups.

As Montauk stirs after a winter of hibernation and businesses are beginning to dust off their welcome mats, responses are rolling in to Montauk’s fourth graders.

“We have received very positive letters from the restaurant Muse at the End, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Shop, the Surf Lodge, and Gosman’s Dock,” Ms. Havlik said. “They have all promised to look into switching to paper straws when it comes time for them to order their inventory.” Ms. Adamcewicz added, “This is a work in progress. And it’s not just about getting businesses to eliminate plastic straws but also about helping students become more mindful about using plastic straws themselves.”

The Montauk School’s superintendent and principal, Jack Perna, has promised that the school will make the switch as soon as its current supply of plastic straws has been depleted. “The problem is,” Ms. Adamcewicz said, “our kids are now so conscientious about using plastic straws that they don’t want to touch them. We can’t seem to get rid of the things now.”