Youth take it into their own hands and make change
Keely O’Gorman has set out to ban, or at least reduce, the use of plastic straws in Berkshire County. Her efforts have been effective.
Photo by Christina Rahr Lane
Keely O’Gorman thinks straws suck—a position she arrived at shortly after watching a video of a plastic drinking straw being removed from the nostril of a sea turtle. Today, the 14-year-old thinks nothing of carrying her own metal drinking straw wherever she goes. For many in this age group—O’Gorman is a ninth-grader at Miss Hall’s School in Pittsfield—such moves are becoming increasingly routine. Hers is a generation that is not only aware of the environment, but also the change that is happening to the planet as a result of unnecessary plastic use and waste.
“It’s really upsetting,” says O’Gorman, whose interest in banning plastic straws was piqued last year as a student at Berkshire Country Day School. “I want to do this so I can help heal the wounds we have caused with all this plastic.” The Last Straw is an initiative she launched last year on Facebook as an extension of her eighth-grade I Witness project at school.
O’Gorman set out to ban, or at least reduce, the use of plastic straws in Berkshire County. “I know that it will be a challenge to completely ban plastic straws, so I am starting off small,” she says of her efforts, largely aimed at local restaurants, many of whom she has approached to ask if they would either stop handing out straws with drinks or consider providing straws only when requested.
Her summer job at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge resulted in the establishment’s drinks department replacing its plastic straws with compostable ones made from soy and limiting the distribution of straws across the board.
Cafe Adam has taken the paper-straw route, and Barrington Brewery is helping to keep thousands of straws from ending up in landfills. A note on the menu reads, “If you need a straw for your drink, please ask for one.” James Tonetti, a fourth-grader at Muddy Brook Elementary in Great Barrington, shares O’Gorman’s passion. Last year, after hearing a radio program about a nine-year-old boy in Vermont who organized his community to ban plastic straws, Tonetti was inspired to effect the same kind of change at his school. “I asked for a meeting with the principal to see how I could better reach the school to get the message out,” Tonetti explains. Enlisting the help of classmates, he and his team encouraged their peers to “skip the straw” in the cafeteria. To educate the community, the group led an all-school meeting where they shared a PowerPoint presentation and an original song they wrote.
Former Muddy Brook principal Mary Berle found money in the school budget to buy paper straws. There was some grumbling at first, as the straws tend to get soggy and invite chewing, but students quickly adapted. “Or they stopped using a straw at all,” says Tonetti. “I am excited about the new change, the ripple effect,” he says, citing that awareness of plastic straws has spread from a student in Vermont, to a student in Great Barrington, to other kids, and now grownups. “Now it is in newspapers and government,” he says proudly.
When Tonetti returned to school this year, he learned that the paper straws were gone and the plastic straws were back. “We have a new principal, so I want to meet with him to make sure that we don’t go backwards,” says Tonetti, who is not letting up on this initiative. “My goal this year for Muddy Brook is to quit all plastics. After we get paper straws back, I want to go after the plastic knives, forks, and spoons in the cafeteria,” he says, exuding equal parts confidence and ambition.
Inspired by Seattle, the first U.S. city to ban plastic straws, O’Gorman is not giving up either. Which means the Berkshires might soon follow Seattle in taking a stance on plastic straws.
“Keely’s efforts and the efforts of her generation to expand the environmental-protection platform have blown me away,” says State Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli. In his role as chair of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, Pignatelli has been in close communication with O’Gorman and is particularly fond of her push for alternatives. The pair plan to continue their conversation this fall in hopes of bringing forth a bill to ban the use of plastic straws in Berkshire County, if not statewide. “The enthusiasm and commitment young people are displaying give me great hope for the future of the environment in the state and across the country,” adds Pignatelli.
Great Barrington has taken a similar stance in recent years. On March 1, 2014, the town became the first community in western Massachusetts to implement a ban on the use of retail plastic bags. And Housatonic resident Anni Crofut was inspired by students at Monument Mountain Regional High School who spoke out against single-use plastic bottles. She became involved in a movement that evolved into the town voting in May to ban their sale, making it only the fourth municipality in the nation to take such measures. The ban is to begin May 1, 2019, with an exemption in case of emergencies. There is also a plan to install water refill stations around town.
It’s a trend that’s gaining traction in South County—and young people are going with the flow. It’s what Crofut calls “a millennial, can-do, exciting spirit.”