Every day, Americans use more than 500 million plastic straws. If asked, many of them would likely say the straw was an afterthought, a tool they don’t necessarily need with every drink.
Locally, the Yakima County Solid Waste Division is hoping to change that through The Last Straw Campaign.
The agency is working with local restaurants to adopt an ask-first policy, where only restaurant patrons who specifically ask for a straw are given one. Businesses are also encouraged to use paper instead of plastic straws.
And residents are asked to bring their own reusable straws.
“A lot of times in restaurants, we sit down and don’t even think about someone putting a straw in our beverage,” said Yakima County recycling coordinator Marci Venable. “You’re using that for such a short amount of time, but it lives forever in the landfill.”
Plastic takes from 500 to 1,000 years to break down — when it actually can, based on landfill conditions — and creates pollution at every stage of its lifetime.
The garbage also often makes its way to oceans and streams, harming wildlife along the way.
Venable referenced the video of a turtle with a straw stuck up its nose that went viral in 2015 as an example.
Researchers from Texas A&M University in College Station found the turtle and first thought the straw was a worm. It took them nearly 10 minutes to remove the four-inch straw from the turtle’s nostril.
“It’s a horrible thing for the turtle, but it’s a teachable moment. It brings it home,” Venable said. “Even though we’re far away from the beach, straws do get into streams and streams go into the ocean, and that disposable item impacts wildlife.”
Kate Platt, owner of Nana Kate’s in Selah, has always had an ask-first policy about straws — just one part of her desire to reduce her carbon footprint.
Recently, she’s started working with a local business that sells reusable, glass straws.
DrinkingStraws.Glass co-owner Kattie Blu gave Platt a set of straws for free — one for each seat in the restaurant — along with glass straws, carrying cases and cleaning brushes to sell.
The straws are made by Blu and her husband in Selah. The couple have been in business for seven years.
Blu is also open to working with any restaurant that wants to join the county’s last straw campaign and offer patrons glass straws instead.
“We see how bad (straws) are and they’re an item people don’t actually need to use all the time,” she said. “We’re just here to offer an alternative and clean up the oceans to have a healthier planet for our kids.”
Venable said she’s been talking with restaurants for only about a week, but already Antojitos Mexicanos has agreed to be a part of the initiative for at least one month. Other local businesses, such as Second Street Grill and Zesta Cucina, have also shown interest.
Straws aren’t the only single-use plastic item the county has tried to curb.
For at least the past decade, the solid waste division has handed out reusable bags and encouraged people to stop using disposable bags at the grocery store.
It hasn’t taken drastic steps like Ellensburg, which instituted a plastic bag fee at the beginning of this year, but Venable said it seems that just boosting awareness has made some people stop using paper or plastic.
“People are getting more accustomed to the idea that they need to use reusable bags — whether they actually do or not,” she said. “But it’s all muscle memory. It’s remembering to get them from the house to the car and then the car to the store.”
But all the division can do is spread awareness and do its best to encourage people to make a choice to stop using single-use materials. It would take a political action by the county commission or a local city council to institute a fee for plastic bags, straws or any other item that sustainability advocates say shouldn’t end up at the landfill.