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A 10-year-old urges restaurants to 'be straw free'

Ten-year-old Milo Cress has started BeStrawFree, a website that encourages restaurants to cut plastic waste by not automatically offering plastic straws to customers.

By Rachel CernanskyContributor / July 6, 2012

Milo Cress, a 10-year-old in Burlington, Vt., has started a campaign to reduce the use of plastic straws by restaurants. 'I'm not out to ban plastic straws,' he says. 'Just cut back on them. Way back, if possible.'

Courtesy of Rachel Cernansky

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When it dawned on Milo Cress that restaurants were constantly serving drinks with a plastic straw, whether he wanted one or not, he thought about what a waste that was – and decided to do something about it.

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But he was not your average activist or even restaurant consumer. He was nine years old.

In February 2011, Milo set to work. He approached Leunig's Bistro in Burlington, Vt., where he lived, to see if it would consider offering straws to customers instead of serving them automatically.

"The goal is to reduce the use and waste of plastic straws that go into our landfill, and to encourage restaurants to adopt an "offer-first policy," says Milo, now 10.  

Leunig's said yes immediately, and Milo's' BeStrawFree campaign has snowballed ever since.

"Now there are restaurants all over. There's a big restaurant chain in Canada, and restaurants across the country. Thousands of restaurants," he says. "People in more than 30 countries are interested and are participating."

Giving out disposable plastic straws is so common that, according to Simply Straws, more than 500 million of them are used in the United States every day. (That doesn't include straws attached to juice boxes.)

To put it another way: Over a lifetime, the average American will use nearly 40,000 straws. That's a lot of plastic, considering the material never breaks down, is made from the same stuff that fuels our carbon-spewing vehicles, and its chemicals are turning up in the most unexpected places, including remote ocean locales and in human bloodstreams.

Trine Wilson of Leunig's estimated that between 5 and 10 percent of its customers – who range from about 250 to 700 daily, depending on the season – do ask for a straw. Otherwise, she says, "Most people are really fine with it and supportive of it, or don't even notice it. And then if they do ask for a straw, they certainly appreciate the effort [to reduce plastic waste]."

That's typical. Once restaurants start offering straws first, Milo says, they see a reduction of about 50 to 80 percent – which means a cost savings as well as a reduction in plastic use.

At least one restaurant has taken the practice a step further: Sneakers Bistro in Winooski, Vt., simply doesn't offer straws, although it does keep them on hand for people who request them.

In the last year and a half, Milo has met with the mayor of Burlington and members of Congress, persuaded the National Restaurant Association to recognize "offer-first" as a best practice, and spoken at conferences across the country. He has an inexplicably large following in South Korea: His mother, Odale Cress, says he will be featured in next year's edition of a textbook there.

The Cresses are even more excited about the latest development for BeStrawFree: a partnership with Eco-Cycle, a Boulder, Colo.-based waste-reduction organization. The goal is to expand the campaign even further.

Just how far BeStrawFree has reached to date is hard to say. Ms. Cress says they've stopped keeping track because the letters of interest, and the restaurants participating, have skyrocketed.

"People will email us when they go traveling and say, 'I was in this little tiny town, and people said there was a little kid in America who started this,' " says Ms. Cress. "That’s so cool to hear, but we don’t keep track anymore."

What seems certain is that the cause is spreading. Earlier this year, restaurants in London launched a similar campaign of their own, Straw Wars.

It's a win-win for restaurants and the environment because when straws are served to customers who don't want them, Milo says, "they simply become very expensive plastic trash."

"I'm not out to ban plastic straws," he said in June at a conference in Boulder, Colo. "Just cut back on them. Way back, if possible."

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