It all started with a straw.

We were travelling through airports, headed towards the Washington, D.C., area to visit family. When my six-year-old twins were presented with straws by a flight attendant, I remembered a recent news report about the alarming amount of plastic and detritus that ends up in our waterways and oceans.

The article featured a photo showing a huge amount of plastic, including drinking straws.

Despite our efforts to tote along our kids' reusable water bottles, the farther we got from Winnipeg and our usual routines, the harder it became to avoid the disposable take-away cups and plastic straws.

Seconds after we'd arrive at a restaurant, the waiter would appear, putting water glasses on the table for adults — and disposable cups with tops and straws for my kids.

We'd already gotten out the water bottles, and they sat on the table first, but the damage was done. Once the restaurant put out the disposable Styrofoam and plastic, it would be thrown away, unless the restaurant actually recycled. We were now contributing to the problem.

Ocean junk

A boy collects plastic materials near a polluted coastline to sell in Manila in 2008. Keeping plastics out of the ocean can start by making small changes like refusing disposable plastic straws, says Joanne Seiff. (Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters)

My kids would be the first to tell you (courtesy of PBS Kids and CBC Kids) that "we need to care for the environment every day, not just Earth Day!" They would say that this kind of waste hurts animals and people. "We only have one planet!"  one of my kids trumpeted back at me, when I mentioned the straws.

However, when you're out at a restaurant and someone hands you this disposable cup with the straw, it's a novelty. It's exciting. And nobody wants to spill or cause a fuss when they are visiting a different country and seeing lots of relatives and friends. Above all else, you want to impress your uncle and grandparents, right?

My kids did not once reject these throw-away items, because — just as their parents would — they wanted to avoid being rude or causing a problem.

Ways to cut this consumption

What can we do? There are ways to cut this consumption. We can definitely make choices, one person at a time, to affect change and try to curb this addiction to throw-away products.

First, as both consumers and business owners, we can do more. As part of Greenpeace Winnipeg's Plastic-Free July campaign happening this month, more than 30 local restaurants agreed not to hand out straws unless customers request them.

Garbage bins

An overflowing garbage and recycling bin along Kingston Crescent in Winnipeg. Both consumers and businesses can make choices to curb waste, says Joanne Seiff. (Chris Read/CBC)

For those who do want a straw, these restaurants offer a compostable one instead. 

Thank restaurants who support this initiative. Encourage them as they reduce their use of disposable products.

More generally, you can ask your local government if they allow restaurants and places of business to recycle. This enables us to reuse plastics and glass that might otherwise end up polluting the environment.

This is currently difficult in Winnipeg. I know of at least one small, upscale restaurant in my neighborhood where the owners carried home the bottles used at the restaurant to recycle them. There was no provision for recycling these as part of the restaurant.

Change your routines

Next, we can be more mindful of our daily routines. How much are you using once and throwing away?

Can you make a shift to using cloth napkins rather than paper ones? Washing your plastic cutlery in your lunch box and reusing it? Why not use real plates and silverware for your next get-together? What about purchasing biodegradable paper plates for your next kid birthday party, and then composting the plates after the event?

Each time you stop using a single-use product, reuse it or discard it responsibly, you are keeping that out of the landfill or waterway.

When we returned from our trip, my husband mowed our lawn. Along the way he picked up quite a bit of trash on the street. The third effort you can make would be this: Please don't drop trash when you're done with it — put it in a trash bin.

If you already do this, go further and pick up the trash you see on the Winnipeg streets (there's a lot of it) and throw it away or recycle it. In a big rain, this goes right down the sewer drains and into the rivers. This cleanup makes a difference, too.

Finally, try to be proactive in a bigger sense. In our neighbourhood, when we show up at a restaurant where we often go, the wait staff smiles. They see the kids' water bottles, and ask if the kids want ice or a refill. Perhaps this requires flexibility on the part of the restaurant, or an extra step for busy parents.

However, it's worth it. If I bring the crayons, the paper, the water bottles, and a good attitude, we can all enjoy a meal out.

Better yet, I don't feel guilty. If we don't use those straws, they can't pollute or end up in that enormous plastic ocean wasteland.

Sometimes making a difference does happen one small straw at a time.


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