WHITEHALL, MI: When Marvin Stone invented the drinking straw in 1888, little did he know that just a century later his invention would have caught on so well that Americans would be using over 500 MILLION straws per day. While Marvin’s straws were paper, most straws used today in the U.S. are plastic. And that plastic doesn’t go away.
Students at Whitehall Middle School were concerned about the impact that such a massive quantity of straws would have on the environment, so they decided to take action. Eighth graders on the school’s Lexus Eco Challenge team–The Coral Keepers–decided to petition the National Day Calendar organization to add National Skip the Straw Day on the fourth Friday in February each year. “We noticed that there was a National Straw Day to recognize Marvin Stone’s invention on January 3rd, and we figured that there should be a day to convince people to skip the straw too”, said student Leah Van Antwerp. Out of 18,000 yearly National Day submissions, Skip the Straw Day was one of only 30 new designations selected by the Calendar.
The students created promotional materials for area restaurants such as table tents, posters, and buttons for servers to wear that encourage people to “Skip the Straw” on Friday, February 24th, and to make it a habit throughout the year. Now the public can celebrate National Skip the Straw Day by posting strawless selfies on social media with the hashtag #SkiptheStrawDay.
The team worked with Whitehall District Schools’ Food Service Director, Dan Gorman, to eliminate straws at lunch, and to use paper straws instead of plastic for breakfast smoothies. These two actions, which would be easy to replicate at other schools, are eliminating 1,400 plastic straws per week (over 50,000 per school year) at Whitehall Middle School. Recognizing that some situations or people may still require a straw, the Coral Keepers conducted student and teacher focus groups to see which types of reusable straws are preferred. Data collected, as well as vendor information, is posted on their website at www.WMSCoralKeepers.com. The team is also using Twitter (@WMSCoralKeepers), and Instagram (coral_keepers) to spread their message.
The students are explaining that the national addiction to straws and other single-use plastics is fouling up beaches, harming wildlife, and even working its way into our diet. Plastic straws fragment instead of biodegrade, and when these microplastic pieces end up in lakes and rivers, they are eaten by the fish that we eventually eat. According to Jamie Cross, Adopt-a-Beach Manager for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, plastic straws are one of the top ten most collected items during beach clean-up events, with over 29,500 picked up during beach sweeps along the Great Lakes in 2016.
The Lexus Eco Challenge is a national STEM competition in which students in grades 6-12 identify an environmental problem and then research and implement a solution. The Coral Keepers are competing in the final round of the Lexus Eco Challenge, after having advanced through the Air & Climate Challenge with their project about ocean acidification. The team’s name comes from their hope that they can inspire people to take action for the survival of our planet’s coral reef systems and overall ocean health. Team member Shelbie Noel has learned through their work that “it takes all of us, with our unique talents, to make a difference.”