Used once and never recycled, should you give straws the final straw?

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CHICAGO – The middle of August means it’s unofficially the end of summer. Looking back at beach days, travel days, long hot days either at work or play, how many times did you find yourself reaching for a cold drink?

With most icy drinks these days it seems that along with it comes a straw.

They’re a simple aid to some, a common cocktail companion to others.

But critics say we can do better than today's standard because 500 million single-use plastic straws are being used every day in America. They’re used once,  and reportedly never recycled, then left on our planet for generations.

Those 500 million straws are enough to wrap around the earth two and a half times and weigh as much as 1,000 cars.  In the United States, that amounts to one and a half straws a day per person.

It all started back in the 1950s when a life changing product hit the mass market.  Animal advocates argued an unexpected call for change arrived decades later when a video went viral. The video shows a sea turtle off the coast of Costa Rica struggling to live with a plastic straw stuck in its nose.

This year, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium said, “Enough.”

The museum initiated the "Shedd the Straw" program last spring  to get people to sip without a straw. 20 area restaurants went straw-less for one day.

"If we can reverse our norm and change the culture around straw use and the use of other single use plastics that are used for minutes are then tossed away then exist forever, we can really change the culture around that,” Jaclyn Wegner of the Shedd Aquarium said.

The results came on June 8.

“Just that day we reduced the use of 10,000 plastic straws just here in Chicago,” Wegner said.

Restaurants across the country are jumping on board to rid of or greatly reduce the largely non-recyclable single use plastic straws. They fill trash cans, our shorelines and waterways. Along with bottle caps and plastic grocery bags, straws are among the top 10 items found on beach clean ups.

Iron Chef Mario Batali banned plastic straws in his restaurants worldwide. Closer to home, burger spot DMK, with over a dozen locations, has said goodbye to plastic straws, too.

In the northern suburbs Chef Sarah Stegner at Prairie Grass Cafe said it’s a chef's responsibility.

“For me, it was I have to do this. I have to do this. Because I think it will catch on. And we can really make a difference,” Stegner said.

There are reminders on every table. And she said it's working. Monthly costs are down and so is straw use.

“We do not give them straws. If they ask, we immediately bring a straw, but we bring a biodegradable one,” Stegner.

Actor and conservation activist Adrian Grenier launched the Sucker Punch campaign through the Lonely Whale Foundation. Prompting the question: Do you need a straw? Or do you just want one?

Linda Booker even made a film about single use straws. The 30-minute, educational tool premiered in April. Right now it's making the rounds on the film festival circuit and is  called Straws the Documentary.

“It's not just about our coastal environments. 80% of this plastic is coming from inland sources,” Booker said.  “That straw that gets thrown away in Chicago could travel downstream into a watershed in the Mississippi River and end up in the ocean."

She said the goal is awareness about people's abuse of single use plastics. Why not start with something as simple as a straw?

“People realize this is something I can easily give up,” Booker said.

So why aren't they recycled? Typically made of polypropylene or polyethylene-straws are rarely marked for recycling, meaning they show a recycling symbol with #5, so users are left confused.

Experts say the long, small, lightweight plastic often gums up recycling machinery. And there are contamination concerns too.

"I’m not against straws, I’m against plastics for single use. I'm trying to raise awareness of the absurdity of single use plastic through the catalyst of the straw,” Jackie Nunez of Plastic Pollution Coalition, said.

The Plastic Pollution Coalition calls straws the gateway to other single use plastic products and claims 80 percent to 90 percent of people don't ask for straws if you don't give them one.

“I think most people are overwhelmed by the problem and they don't know where to start,” Nunez said.

Critics say simply saying no to something as simple as a straw is a step toward extinguishing what they call a plastics problem--straws being just the tip of the iceberg.

"It's a matter of time. This is going to happen. It's a matter of time,” Stegner said.

Alternatives to single use plastic straws are out there. They include steel straws, paper ones, glass, even bamboo.

More information at these websites:

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