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The Last Straw

Posted on Sep 01, 2017 in Pollution , Straws , September-October 2017

Straws are among the most commonly found items on the beach each day, potentially causing life threatening damage to marine life. Photos by Jeni Bailey

SEASIDE® aims to end plastic straw pollution by Wendy O. Dixon

Count how many straws you use today — your breakfast smoothie and an iced coffee, fountain soda with lunch and a tropical cocktail or two in the evening. You may have used up to five straws by the end of the day. They may seem harmless. But plastic drinking straws, as well as all other non-biodegradable waste that gets left behind by litterbugs at the beach each year, can have devastating effects on marine life and the environment. Sea turtles, dolphins and other marine animals have ingested plastics, including plastic straws. According to the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Americans discard 500 million straws per day. And straws consistently make Ocean Conservancy’s top 10 most collected items during beach cleanups. Even if they are properly discarded into a trash or recycling bin, plastic straws can end up in a landfill or easily blown in the air and into the ocean. Seaside is taking the initiative to end plastic waste, as several local businesses are making the switch from plastic to paper straws as an eco-friendly alternative.

Arix Zalace, co-owner of Raw & Juicy and Raw & Juicy Life, both in Seaside, was the first to use paper straws. “We began experimenting with paper straws two years ago at our coconut bar to see how people would receive them,” he says. Other restaurants are now on board, serving drinks with paper straws, which begin decomposing within about 45 minutes. For Zalace, the issue is about so much more than cleaning up the straws that end up on the beach each day. “It’s about protecting the sea turtles, because of their important role in the ecosystem and in our economy,” he says. “Much like a lawn, sea grasses need a regular mowing to thrive. Sea turtles eat the grass blades, acting as a sort of lawn mower, which then stimulates root growth, increasing the density and size of the grass bed.” Thousands of fish, crustaceans and shellfish rely on this sea grass to survive.

Only in the last 200 years has the number of sea turtles dwindled due to their biggest threat — human beings. If a sea turtle accidently ingests a straw, it will try to regurgitate it, making it possible to become stuck in its nostril, which can cause death. As part of an initiative to educate the public, Raw & Juicy labels its paper straws “Beach Ready,” showing that they are safe for the environment. “That label usually gets people to ask us what it means and then we can explain it,” Zalace says. “Once people understand how important it is, they love it. And it even makes for a nice photo because it’s a pretty straw. It makes it more of an experience.”

Meltdown on 30A, Great Southern Café, Pickle’s Burger & Shake, Wild Bill’s Beach Dogs, The Shrimp Shack, Dawson’s Yogurt & Fudge Works, It’s Heavenly and Bud & Alley’s Waterfront Restaurant & Roof Top Bar are among the Seaside restaurants that made the switch from plastic to paper straws. The cost is a little more for the business owner (from 1-2 cents to 3-5 cents per straw). But it is negligible, says Zalace.

Jeni Bailey, mother of three, has lived in the 30A area for eight years. She recently founded Take 5 for 30A, a grass-roots effort to clean the beaches of South Walton. “We have always taken time to clean up after ourselves. And we saw that many others were not. We noticed that more and more trash has accumulated. And the No. 1 thing we found on the beach was plastic straws,” she explains. “It became a summer adventure to see how much trash was on the beach and what we could do to make an impact. A worldwide movement called the Five Minute Beach Cleanup asks people to take five minutes to clean their surrounding area. The Take 5 for 30A initiative is a nod to that. And it doesn’t involve any red tape. It’s something you can do right now. Just clean up, even if it’s not your trash.”

The Take 5 for 30A initiative encourages people to take five minutes cleaning their surrounding area at the end of a day at the beach.

Bailey recommends that the kids can make a game out of it and fill their sand bucket with debris. “Some people complain about the trash on the beach,” she adds. “But we don’t want to complain. We just want to act.”

Bailey contacted local restaurants, asking if they’d consider using paper straws instead of plastic. “It was such an overlooked problem right in our own backyard,” she adds. “Our main goal is just to inspire people to lead through example to help keep our beaches as pristine as they can be. Business owners who have switched over to paper are always great advocates for bettering our community. They did yet another great job leading through example.”

Dave Rauschkolb, owner of Bud & Alley’s, Taco Bar and Pizza Bar, also praises the switch Seaside is making toward paper instead of plastic straws. “This decision really was a no brainer for me when Jeni Bailey contacted me,” he says. “We eliminated plastics several years ago in all of my restaurants by switching to paper to-go containers and corn-based cups and straws. When I learned that corn-based straws don’t break down quickly enough, I immediately asked my managers to please order paper straws. This is even more important now that we have a bar directly on the beach. It is my hope that all other restaurants in South Walton and neighboring counties will follow suit and make the switch. Much thanks to Jeni Bailey and Take 5 for 30A for drawing attention and action to this issue.”