Vermont teenager Milo Cress was nine years old when he first began to notice that people weren’t using their straws in restaurants. He asked the owner of one particular restaurant if he’d tell his servers to give straws only to customers who asked for them. The owner said sure, we can do that.
Milo started wondering about plastic straws in general—how many were made, how they were used, and what happened to them after they were thrown away. The answer to that last question was that millions of them turn up in the world’s waters, and never disintegrate. Animals eat some of them, and die. More float forever in the growing islands of plastic in the oceans.
So this fourth-grader did something that would be extremely low on typical fourth-graders’ to-do lists: He conducted some research. He contacted several companies who manufacture plastic straws asking them to estimate how many straws were used each day in the United States.
Milo, now a high school senior, says, “It’s 1.5 straws per person per day, which may not seem like a lot but it really adds up. . . . Pretty much, no matter what the number is, as long as we’re throwing away straws when we don’t need to, the number is too high.”
Milo started talking with friends, with companies, and eventually, as the founder of “Be Straw Free,” with groups all around the country. “…it was one step that I could take as a kid. 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.”
Milo isn’t advocating the banning of plastic straws. What he does want, though, is for people to use fewer of them. His work has produced substantial results. In 2018, Seattle became the first U.S. city to ban single-use plastic straws and utensils at businesses that sell food or drinks. And a week later, Starbucks announced that its stores would no longer provide single-use plastic straws to its customers, worldwide. That alone is expected to eliminate the use of more than one billion plastic straws each year.
Milo has braved criticism from people who either don’t believe in conservation or who believe that what he’s promoting won’t make any difference in the tsunami of plastic across the planet. But Milo keeps going. He’s spoken to thousands of students around the world about how to reduce plastic pollution. They’re listening; they’re on it, now and in the future.
After he graduates from high school, Milo intends to study computer technology and apply it to the field of conservation. “This planet is where we live. We have an individual and collective responsibility for saving and protecting it.”