DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) — Ten-year-old Janice Bailey holds tightly to the tiny turtle necklace dangling around her neck, pulling it close to her mouth while contemplating the answer to the question.
That is her simple goal – protect sea turtles. And her campaign to do so has led to changes at a few local restaurants and eateries.
If you want to sip your drink through a straw at Cactus Flower, Zack’s Family Restaurant and the FunZone in Dothan and The Daily Grind in Cowarts, you will have to request one.
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“If you really look at it, there isn’t that big of a need. We’ve become a very convenience-oriented society,” said Christie Emery, Bailey’s grandmother. “Everything’s convenience, and we’re becoming convenient to our detriment honestly. It’s not a big leap to put down a straw.”
What’s the big deal about a slender, 8-inch plastic tube? Well, not much, except a National Park Service report has revealed that Americans use 500 million straws a day – more than one per person per 24-hour cycle.
Unfortunately many of them end up in the ocean, which is why Bailey’s campaign exists.
Emery remembers a time when Americans used much fewer straws.
“When I was even a teenager, we would go to McDonald’s and they had straws, but they were very optional,” she said. “When we got our bag and it had our food and stuff in it, if we wanted straws, we went and got them. Now restaurants and every place automatically puts the straw at the table, automatically puts them in your bag.”
What changed in American culture? National Geographic, in an online article published on April 12, suggests concerns over disease outbreaks like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in the early 2000s turned Americans germ-conscious.
Suddenly, everyone began using a straw. Emery said she understands people with certain health issues may need straws, but even those do not have to be plastic – which, if it ever decomposes, takes eons to do so.
Instead, the billions of straws end up in landfills or oceans because people do not think about recycling them because of their small size, the National Geographic article said.
Emery said she and her family were guilty of falling into the habit of getting straws every time they dined out.
“It was eye-opening to us how dependent we were on straws. We didn’t think of it until we were faced with it,” she said. “Even before this, I had straws all in my car, in my glove box because we would get them and not use them, but they end up somewhere.”
Earlier this summer, Bailey’s family took a vacation. Perhaps as a premonition to the following months that would change their lives, Bailey purchased a turtle necklace.
Soon after the family returned from vacation, Emery saw a photo of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose. She showed it to Bailey, and Bailey wanted to do something to protect the sea turtles.
While doing some reasearch, Emery stumbled upon National Geographic ‘s “Chasing Genius” challenge. The challenge prompted citizens to devise a way to better improve the environment with the chance of earning $25,000 to support the idea.
While many of the ideas already approved were heavily scientific, Emery and Bailey decided to enter with a simple idea: reduce Americans’ use of straws.
“I know a couple of people that own businesses, so we said, ‘They use straws, so maybe we can help them reduce straws,'” Emery said. “That’s where our challenge came in.”
As part of the challenge, the duo had to make a video. Using the theme of being a “superhero,” Emery used her iPhone to cobble together a short video that contained clips of Bailey skating with a superhero cape, of her talking with business owners about the project, and of course, photos of turtles and the trash that is impacting them.
All told, the duo reached out to six local businesses – with the FunZone, The Daily Grind, Zack’s Family Restaurant and Cactus Flower agreeing to help in a variety of ways, Emery said. Red Elephant, as per company policy, uses biodegradable straws that decompose nearly three-quarters of the way in seven years, Emery said.
The Daily Grind employees do not immediately provide straws to customers, and the owners are currently conducting research on offering stainless steel straws for purchase, according to co-owner Terri Appel. Appel said they are trying to determine if enough market exists to warrant the sale of the permanent straws and which company would be the best provider.
Appel said she was happy to support the duo’s quest to reduce the usage of straws, although implementing the idea took some adjusting.
“It’s been a given for many, many years,” she said. “I’m very big into recycling, so any time we can reduce what we throw away, I’m all for it.”
While the duo’s project was not selected as a contest finalist in late August, Emery said they are happy with the response so far.
“Who knows where this will go? It may go nowhere. It may have just affected some change in four or five businesses,” Emery said. “Even if we just hit the four businesses that we did, it affected change there, and that’s just within a week’s period.”
“At least we tried,” Bailey added.
Emery said they will continue to use their own stainless steel straws and have shared their campaign with family and friends. And if anyone has reservations about ditching straws, Emery poses a couple of questions to them.
“When you go home and cook your dinner, do you use a straw?” she asked. “Then I would say if you don’t, then why are you using one at a restaurant? “
Information from: The Dothan Eagle, http://www.dothaneagle.com