“How many plastic straws do Americans use every day?” In 2011, a 9-year-old boy from Burlington, Vermont, wanted to know. Calling straw manufacturers from across the nation, young Milo Cress found his answer – 500 million. Enough straws to fill over 127 school buses every day, or more than 46,400 every year.

Armed with this startling discovery, Milo got to work launching his Be Straw Free campaign, hoping to raise awareness of the issue and inspire others to “Go Strawless!” It didn’t take long for others to commit to the movement, including many communities and global environmental activists aware of the ever-growing problem of plastic in our oceans. But support for the cause really took off after a video by marine biologist Christine Figgener went viral.

Go Strawless, Save a Turtle

The full video, posted on YouTube in 2015, demonstrates the consequences of a plastic straw-ridden lifestyle. It shows Christine and her team struggling to aid an injured sea turtle with some debris stuck in its nose. Using a pair of pliers, the team tries, as gently as possible, to secure and remove the object. Eventually they free the debris which, to their shock, turns out to be none other than a plastic straw.

If this is what a single plastic straw can do, imagine the impact of the nearly 7.5 million plastic straws that line US shorelines. Or the estimated 437 million to 8.3 billion that pollute shorelines around the globe. And this is only a small percentage of the more than 8 million metric tons of plastic waste that ends up in the world’s oceans each year.

Plastic is absolutely everywhere. From the remote Henderson Island to the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on the planet, plastic is wreaking havoc for the world’s turtles, sea birds, and even whales. If we don’t change our habits, scientists estimate that by 2050, the mass of plastic in the world’s oceans will exceed the mass of all the fish that live there. We know that unrecycled plastic waste has disastrous consequences for our global ecosystem. Now we’ve got to do something about it.

Be a Smart Sipper

Luckily, many corporations, cities, and even national governments are already making changes, proposing and implementing reductions and even full-fledged bans on plastic straws. Plastic straws are currently banned in many US coastal cities, including Seattle, Miami, New York City, and Hawaii. Businesses that have banned plastic straws in their facilities include many large hotel chains (Hilton and Marriott), airlines (American and Alaskan), cruise lines (Royal Caribbean) and starting in 2020, Starbucks.

It’s small changes like these that can have a big impact. And the world’s response to the issues brought to light by the Be Straw Free campaign present a first step in the right direction. As Christine Feggener said in her interview with TIME, “Straws are just the poster child for a much bigger problem, and it’s a part of the problem that we can do something about in our everyday life. Everybody can do their part in helping turtles or helping this planet exist for longer.”

On World Cleanup Day this Saturday, September 21, we’d like to reflect on not just how we can change what the world is drinking, but how we can help change the world. And you can too.

If you’d like to see how you can get involved in World Cleanup Day, visit this link. For more information on how you can decrease your use of plastic, visit Eco-Cycle. You can also go to The Last Plastic Straw for a list of straw alternatives.

Written on September 18, 2019.