At the impetus of New Paltz High School seniors taking the Participation in Government class, town and village board members passed resolutions last week asking restaurateurs to at least ask before plunking a plastic straw in a drink.
Drawing on data from Riverkeeper indicating that single-use straws were among the most common items collected during shoreline cleanups, the students found such a resolution passed in 2016 by members of the Marbletown Town Board and brought it forward with the support of Deputy Mayor KT Tobin. Straws, like many single-use plastics, degrade into smaller and smaller pieces which end up in oceans and waterways where they are frequently eaten by fish, thereby entering the food chain. The intent of the resolution, they told elected officials, is to spread awareness of the problem such items cause; reducing how often they are given out would also save money for the business in question.
While small children and the elderly might actually need straws, the students maintained, even those could be replaced with reusable ones, or ones that can be composted.
“I was initially very dismissive” of this effort, admitted Town Supervisor Neil Bettez, but true to his science background he changed his tune when confronted with data showing just how common these waste items are in the environment. He described himself as “now totally on board.”
Two years ago, New Paltz resident Malcolm Condon asked a number of restaurant owners in New Paltz to take such a pledge as part of a service project at Oakwood Friends School. Unfortunately, that effort didn’t end well, as he recounted when reached this week. Some of the businesses have since closed, but in others either the manager or owner who agreed never advised staff members of the change, or simply gave up the effort as too difficult.
“I’ve lived here for 15 years, in this very liberal town where the government is accommodating and open to change, but at the same time environmentalists are kind of second-class citizens,” Condon said. “If this is how people treat this simple issue, I don’t know how we can tackle big issues like the chaos in the White House.”
The difference between environmentalists and others, Condon feels, is that “climate change feels very real to us. I’ve dedicated a great part of my life to it.”
To Condon, being provided a straw automatically is a form of infantilization. “When I get a straw, it makes me feel like I’m a kid, a baby. I can drink from the rim of the glass.” He doesn’t buy arguments about it being more sanitary, either: “Do you use straws in private homes? Do you ask for them in your beer or wine?” Private homes don’t receive the health inspections required of commercial kitchens, he noted.
Enough single-use straws are tossed out in this country alone to fill Yankee Stadium nine times over in a year, he said, and while he agreed that “any progress at all is great,” he’s come to realize that, as with many other issues, “The time is now. We don’t have the time to work up to it. We need to do it now.” The inability to agree on relatively simple changes “makes me feel like there’s no hope, but I’ll still keep trying.”
The resolution passed does not have the force of law, and will largely rely on the high school students who suggested it raising awareness of the request. Time will tell if their efforts will change habits which are apparently deeply ingrained in local eateries.