One Child's Outsized Influence On The Debate Over Plastic Straws

Jul 22, 2018
Originally published on July 22, 2018 7:40 pm

People are talking a lot about plastic straws these days — how international corporations like Starbucks and Marriott International are banning them, and the deleterious impact they have on the environment.

At the center of these conversations is a statistic: Each day, Americans use an estimated 500 million straws. The number has been used to illustrate the scale of the issue and modern society's reliance on this ubiquitous piece of disposable plastic.

Statistics like these can move fast. The New York Times, Fox News, CNN and other major news outlets — including NPR — have all cited the figure, as have environmental organizations and even the National Park Service.

It turns out, however, that the number is imprecise and originates from Milo Cress, a young environmentalist who researched straw usage to come up with the 500 million estimate when he was just nine years old.

As a curious fourth grader who had just started an environmental project to discourage restaurants from providing straws by default, Cress decided to look online to find out how many straws are used each day in the United States. Not being able to find any statistics, he called straw manufacturers directly and estimated the 500 million figure based on numbers they provided him.

"Right from the get-go, it seemed like a reasonable number because that's 1.5 straws per person per day, which may not seem like a lot but it really adds up," says Cress in an interview with Korva Coleman for NPR's Weekend Edition, describing the pervasiveness of straws in the day-to-day, such as the ones on the sides of juice boxes or handed out with school lunches.

Since then, the figure has stuck. Cress, who just turned 17, concedes the research was informal, but he believes the number to still be fairly accurate. He says that people who focus on the imprecise number are missing the point: "Pretty much, no matter what the number is," says Cress, "as long as we're throwing away straws when we don't need to, that number is too high."

Though Cress says he looks forward to more formal studies — and that a consensus on an accurate figure will hopefully be reached — he's more focused on seeing the number decrease significantly.

At the center of his environmentalism — stirred by when he helped organize beach clean-ups — is Cress' realization that straws are too "trivial" of an item to be produced with oil, a "valuable and dwindling resource."

Today, Cress is preparing to start his senior year of high school in Shelburne, Vt., and hopes to study the ways that computer technology can apply to the environmental field. Conservation is a philosophy he carries each day, quite literally: Cress limits his use of disposable plastics and keeps a reusable straw with him. It is, after all, what sparked his environmental activism and made him feel capable of enacting change, even as a kid.

"The reason that I focused on straws in particular is because for me, it was one step that I could take as a kid," says Cress. "I could encourage my friends ... and when my friends started doing it, I think they felt really empowered not only to use fewer plastic straws, but to approach plastics throughout their lives with a different viewpoint."

This story was produced for broadcast by Tyler Hill and edited by Konstantin Kakaes.

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Impressive statistics can spread quickly. The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Fox News, CNN and Time magazine have all reported that Americans throw away 500 million plastic straws every day. The National Park Service and numerous environmental groups have cited the figure. So has NPR. That figure is suspect. Polls about straws conducted by market researchers range from 170-390 million. Milo Cress came up with that 500 million tally. He was 9 years old at the time. Now he's just turned 17. I asked him how he calculated the number.

MILO CRESS: Well, it was some time ago when I was 9. And at the time, I was curious how many straws we used and threw away. And so I looked around online, but I couldn't find any statistics on what our daily straw use was. And so I decided to contact the people that I thought would know, if anyone would know, who were the United States straw manufacturers. And so I contacted three straw manufacturers, and I asked them what they estimated to be the size of the United States straw market per day, how many straws we use and threw away in the United States. And the average estimate they gave me was 500 million straws.

COLEMAN: Does the use of the number bother you in any way? Are you troubled?

CRESS: Not at all. I hesitate to claim that's it's a definitive fact because, as I said, it is just an estimate. And people who want to pass it off as a definitive fact are missing the spirit in which I came up with the number, which is that we use too many straws.

COLEMAN: How big of a pollution problem are straws compared to other types of plastic in the environment? Are people just looking at the 500 million straws as a shocking statistic?

CRESS: I don't believe so. As a matter of fact, Jesse Mechling from the Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts has told me that straws are one of the most common items that wash up on beaches.

COLEMAN: What about something like disposable plastic bags?

CRESS: The reason that I focused on straws in particular is because, for me, it was one step that I could take as a kid. Often, for kids, it's hard to get your parents involved in an environmental issue, where ordering a drink without a straw is something that kids can do already. It's something that anyone can do because anyone who can order a drink can ask for one without a straw whenever they don't want to or need to use one. And it was something that I could encourage my friends to do. When my friends started doing it, I think they felt really empowered, not only to use fewer plastic straws, but to approach plastics throughout their lives with a different viewpoint.

COLEMAN: Environmentalist Milo Cress will soon start his senior year of high school in Shelburne, Vt. He joined us on Skype. Milo, thanks for talking to us.

CRESS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.