Malcolm Condon may not know which straw broke the camel’s back, but he is quite clear which ones pose a threat to animals in the oceans: all of them. Taking matters into his own hands, he’s been pounding the pavement in New Paltz, asking restaurateurs to take a pledge to reduce how many of them are thrown away, and likewise asking customers to say, “No straw, please.”
The 13-year-old has wanted to be a marine biologist since he was the age of four, and in that time he’s seen a lot of plastic under the waves and washed up on shore. If there is to be any marine life left for him to study, he concluded, then the culture of throwaway plastics has to be changed. He keeps heartbreaking videos bookmarked on his phone to make his point, like one where an entire straw is removed — quite painfully — from where it had lodged up the nose of a sea turtle, all but entirely obstructing the animal’s ability to breathe. His Facebook page, “The Undersea World of Malcolm Condon,” is now more focused on plastics education than it is on pictures and videos of marine animals.
Straws are the most egregious offenders, Condon has determined; they represent anywhere from 60-95% of the single-use plastic in the seas. Over the course of a year, the number of plastic straws tossed out in this country would fill Yankee Stadium nine times over. To put it another way, that’s enough straws to fill 15 school buses a day being dumped in the ocean. These bits of plastic look like they may be food, and there are examples of birds and sea animals consuming so much that it kills them over time. The pieces don’t break down like organic matter — taking 200 years or more to decompose — but can get bitten and chewed into tinier and tinier pieces which end up inside the bodies of fish that humans eat, bringing those straws home in a completely unexpected way. Not all of it ends up in people, though; Condon said that it’s estimated there will be more plastic in the ocean than animals by 2050.
Condon took on the straw-free pledge as a service project for school. As someone who worked on getting Ulster County’s ban on styrofoam packaging passed, he’s no stranger to how challenging it is to change behavior. What’s he’s doing this time around will not carry the force of law, but is instead designed to be a grassroots effort. Each business owner who commits to simple steps like stocking non-plastic straws and not providing one unless asked, gets a certificate, as well as a complimentary box of paper straws to get the ball rolling. Condon has plenty of paper straws to hand out, but more recently he discovered a better alternative: corn.
Straws that are made of polylactic acid (PLA) derived from corn husks look and behave just like the plastic straws made from petroleum. There are important differences, though. Instead of breaking down over centuries, it takes only 45-60 days for them to disappear, and they dissolve completely in hot water. Paper straws break down slightly faster, but corn plastic, Condon has discovered, is more economical: they cost about a penny apiece when purchased in bulk, compared to 23 cents or more for the paper variety. That also means that using them wouldn’t lead to more deforestation, an argument that has been raised against the New Paltz village plastic bag ban. With PLA products, business owners can support the environmental mission without breaking the bank.
Ultimately, Condon feels that straws are entirely unnecessary. His mother, Birdie, recalls that they were only used by children when she was young, but now they are an expected accessory for adults as well. That’s why the second part of his efforts — getting individuals to specifically ask that no straw be provided — is so important.
The straw-free push is just beginning in New Paltz, but Condon has already had promising results and feedback, including 50 individuals who have pledged to turn down straws with their drinks. Lagusta Yearwood, who owns the chocolate shop Lagusta’s Luscious as well as Lagusta’s Luscious Commissary, was already running her businesses sans plastic straws. Other business owners he’s spoken to have been excited that the switch can be so inexpensive, and he’s left literature at 15 local food providers so far. Those owners and managers should expect him to stop back.
“People are friendly,” Condon said, and generally supportive of the idea. One passerby, on overhearing the straw-free pitch, pressed him for information on where to buy paper straws for their home. Members of the town’s Environmental Conservation Board wrote a letter in support of his efforts. He’s finding that, while many people are effectively addicted to plastics, there is a sincere desire to break that habit.
He may be starting with downtown businesses, but Condon’s set a bar that’s much higher than that. “Ideally, everyone will stop using straws,” he said. Anything less will imperil his dream of becoming a marine biologist, he said, because by the time he’s an adult there may not be much biology left to study if people don’t change their behavior now.