Milo Cress doesn't want to ban plastic straws, but he does want people to think about whether they really need to use them.
The 17-year-old Shelburne, Vt., resident is the person behind the much-referenced statistic that 500 million plastic straws are used in the United States every day.
And, as founder of the Be Straw Free campaign, he really thinks most people can usually do without them.
Cress was just 8 years old when he started thinking about disposable plastic straw use. He took it upon himself to research the issue to come up with his 500-million-straw estimate.
The number has been widely used in the media as the plastic straw draws more and more attention.
It's a number that Cress realizes is open to criticism, and he's willing to consider other figures. But nobody has come back to him with a better number, he said.
“When I first got started, I didn't see any number or research on how many straws were used daily in the United States. I thought that kind of statistic would be a very powerful way of telling people that we use more straws than we need to,” Cress said.
So Cress, at age 9, reached out to straw manufacturers to establish what he calls an informal estimate of daily use. Three companies spoke with him at the time.
“I just called them up and asked them what do you estimate the size of the United States straw market per day. That gave me an estimate of around 500 million straws,” he said.
“It's just an estimate. And I did it when I was 9. Both of those things are absolutely, 100 percent true. If anyone has a better number or some figure that they've done more research on than I have, then I'm open to hearing that and using that figure,” Cress said. “The reason I came up with my own figure was that I was not able to see one.”
While Cress said he is willing to use a different estimate, he is not backing away from his message.
“To say that we shouldn't use fewer straws because this number is possibly inaccurate, I think, is absolutely missing the point of what I'm trying to do,” he said. “The thinking is however many straws we use, it's too many.”
Cress became interested in the subject after noticing the number of straws that would be used when he went out to dinner.
Water came with a straw. Other drinks with straws. And refills came with their own new straws, he remembered. “I looked around and it seemed to be happening to other people, too. The straws just pile up and often I see them not being used at all. People will get a drink with a straw in it and then must take it out and not use it. That just seemed like a huge waste,” Cress said.
“What I thought was what if restaurants offered straws to customers instead of serving one with every drink,” he said.
Cress, who will be a high school senior this year, is not completely against plastic straws. He'll even use them from time to time. He just wants people to think about their use and cut back. Way back.
“When I order my drink without a straw and it comes with a straw in it anyway, there's nothing I can do at that point because I can't get them to reuse the straw because that would be pretty much a [health code] violation,” he said. “At that point, sometimes I'll use the straw if I feel I need one. Often I'll just leave it there.”
He also has a reusable stainless-steel straw that he carries.
Cress, while arguing against the mindless use of plastic straws, said he is against any legislative action to ban the products. And he realizes plastic straws are necessary in some situations, such as a health care setting where they help bedridden people.
“I'm not for banning straws because I think that is an irresponsible thing to do,” he said. Convincing people they do not need as many straws, he said, is “a much more valuable thing than making that decision for them.”
Cress said he certainly has received criticism of the years for his stance, but he said once he is able to start a dialogue, usually through email, people tend to have a better understanding of his approach.
“I think they are misunderstanding what my project is trying to do, which is to make people more conscious of their plastics use and waste. That's something I've said from the start. If you need a straw, go ahead; go for it. I've also tried to highlight the reusable and sustainable alternatives. I'm always willing to listen to people who have a different opinion,” he said.