At this point, it may be difficult to find an American citizen who hasn’t heard of Trash Island, the nickname for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii. The pile, which sits at the center of what National Geographic calls the “Pacific trash vortex” and reportedly reached three times the size of France this March, is a massive calling card for the dangers of single-use plastics and their destructive impact on landfills and oceans worldwide. Though Boise is more than 400 miles from the nearest coastline, local restaurants and bars have been doing their parts to reduce waste by switching from plastic straws to paper straws on request, joining an international movement that seeks to cut down on single-use plastics one piece at a time.
One of the leaders of that movement is Jackie Nunez, founder of the Santa Cruz, California-based campaign The Last Plastic Straw. A trained kayak guide with an environmental activist bent, Nunez decided to dedicate herself full time to the reduction of single-use plastics following a kayaking trip she lead to the Glover’s Reef Atoll World Heritage Site in Belize, where her group saw the pristine waterway become “a river of trash” following a storm.
“I started talking about plastic straws back in 2009, just bringing it up with my friends,” Nunez said. “I volunteer with [Save Our Shores] beach cleanups and things like that, and I got to a point where I got very overwhelmed by the problem. … The analogy I had was if there’s a boat that was sinking, we kept bailing the boat with a teaspoon. We weren’t plugging that hole, but I didn’t know how to stop the flow.”
Inspiration struck following her Belize trip. Back home in Santa Cruz, Nunez was sipping a drink at a beachside bar when she realized that the plastic straw she was using might soon become one of the many she’d kayaked past. That straw, she said, was her own personal “last plastic straw,” and the spark of what would soon become a movement.
Nunez calls straws “the gateway issue” and “the poster child” for single-use plastic reduction. According to Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit recycling company, U.S. citizens use some 500 million straws every day—enough to fill 46,400 40-foot school buses each year. They’re a staple in landfills because many are too thin and lightweight to make it through recycling machinery.
“The plastics problem, especially in the environment, has just increased exponentially,” Nunez said. “And if you start looking into it you see the production rate of plastics is just skyrocketing, yet our reclamation rates are flat-lining over the last 40, 50 years. We can’t keep up with the rate we’re producing these.”
In 2010, Nunez started The Last Plastic Straw to raise awareness of the plastics problem, and how easy it is for an individual to make a difference by turning down plastic straws at bars and restaurants. For the retailers themselves, she referenced California’s Water is Precious campaign, which mandates that water only be served on request for drought conservation, and advised that they only offer straws made from paper, bamboo, metal or some other non-plastic material on request. In 2011, she ramped up her presence on social media, but it wasn’t until a 2015 video of a sea turtle having a plastic straw gruesomely extracted from its nose turned the world’s collective stomachs that her campaign really took off. The video, filmed by Texas A&M marine biologist Christine Figgener, went viral, and now has almost 24 million views. Following that increase in public interest, Nunez joined up with the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a global alliance that shares her goals and provides her a larger platform.
“I work on this premise that nobody starts out to pollute the planet, they’re just not aware,” she said.