I was born and raised on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. As the name suggests, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by the ocean and spent much of my childhood at the beach. From a very young age my parents instilled passion and respect for the environment in me, something I’ve carried through to adulthood in both my personal life and my professional life (as a Zoo Keeper).
The wake-up call
In March 2016 I had a baby… a baby who refused to sleep unless on the move, meaning I found myself outdoors pushing a pram for a few hours each day. As I walked along the beach, I collected pieces of rubbish and noticed the huge number of plastic straws. As I picked up straw after straw, I began thinking … how many people actually require a straw to drink from a cup and the answer was, not too many!
I wondered why I’d never considered straws to be an issue prior to this experience.
I was aware that plastic was a huge problem affecting the environment and our wildlife with 80% of wild sea turtles seen by vets at Taronga Zoo having ingested plastic. It was rare that I ordered a drink, which required a straw but when I did, I used that straw and didn’t give it a second thought. I began wondering what I could do to let everyone else know about my light bulb moment.
Springing into action
In January 2017, I started my Facebook page, ‘Convenient for who?’ in an attempt to let others know about the impacts single-use plastics are having on our environment, to talk about alternatives and to encourage friendly, positive conversations with people who were wanting to make changes and ditch the plastic.
A couple of months later, I organised a group of people to take part in ‘Clean Up Australia Day’ and we focused heavily on a small part of the same area I did much of my walking. The amount of plastic straws we found in one small area alone was mind blowing.
That night I did some research about plastic straws...
It is estimated that Australians use 2.9 billion straws each year.
They can’t be recycled, making them a truly single-use item.
They are in the top 10 of items collected from waterways.
The production process requires a huge amount of non-renewable resources.
Plastics don't decompose. Instead they break up into micro-plastics which are consumed by marine animals and so make their way into our food chain.
A petition to ban plastic straws
Armed with this information, I began writing a petition requesting that Northern Beaches Council phase out and ban plastic straws in restaurants, cafés and pubs throughout the Northern Beaches (by 2020).
I started speaking with other local environmental organisations to get as much information and support as I could and a few weeks later, the petition was on change.org. I planned to start approaching businesses directly in regards to their straw usage once the petition reached 1000 signatures and in the meantime, took a hard copy of the petition to every community event I could. I also gathered as much information as possible about the impacts plastic straws were having on the environment and sourced a number of environmentally responsible alternatives for plastic straws.
The 1000 signatures came faster than expected.
Reaching out to businesses
I started getting in touch with and reaching out to local businesses in an attempt to have them ditch the plastic.
Initially I focused on businesses I was familiar with and whom I thought would be more willing to make changes, which in most cases proved successful.
Something I found very surprising was the number of businesses who acknowledged plastic straws were a huge problem and who wanted to make change but weren’t sure where to start.
Over the following year, I reached out to approximately 80 businesses in total and over 40 of these changed their ‘plastic straw ways’.
The majority of these venues switched to a sustainable paper (or stainless steel for dine-ins) variety, others ditched straws altogether and a few stuck with the plastic but kept the straws behind the bar and only handed them out on request. Some of these venues were small cafés, others were larger pubs and restaurants. All venues displayed simple, clear signage explaining their decision.
The Council meeting that changed everything
In March 2018, a Northern Beaches Councillor came across my petition and being in full support of it, put it on the agenda for an upcoming Council meeting.
I presented my case to a group of Councillors and a packed auditorium and the motion was passed!!!
It was now the responsibility of the council to get in touch with businesses, encouraging them to start making changes to their plastic straw usage in preparation for 2020. For me (and a bunch of others from local environmental organisations) waiting until 2020 seemed a long time so we formed an ‘action group’.
We ran an information evening for others who wanted to get involved and hit the streets to continue the conversation with local businesses. This proved extremely beneficial, as we managed to convince quite a few more venues to change their ways.
Move to the NT
This work is continuing on the Northern Beaches without me as I’m now living in Darwin with my little family. I’ve been chatting with a number of businesses in the NT and a few, including ‘Lola’s Pergola’ at Cullen Bay; and ‘Jay’s Caravan’ at Nightcliff and Rapid Creek Markets have ditched the plastic and switched to paper. This just goes to show that businesses around Australia are ready to be part of a better future.
What you can do to reduce plastic straws
I’ve always considered myself a shy person and am amazed I’ve managed to create change like this. I believe one of the most important things an individual can do is have a friendly, informal conversation about single-use plastics - so many people are still unaware of the severe impacts that these items are having on the environment.
3 tips to cut down on plastic straws
Be proactive and refuse straws when you order drinks.
Bring your own reusable straw (think stainless steel, bamboo or glass).
Speak to local businesses that you visit frequently and ask them to switch to a more sustainable practice.
And in the words of naturalist Sir David Attenborough, a man who has inspired Queen Elizabeth to request plastic straws be phased out of public cafés around royal palaces.
“We have a responsibility – every one of us. What we actually do, has a direct effect on the Oceans and what the Oceans do then reflects back on us. It is one world and it is in our care.”
Words by: Farley MacDonald