plastic straws

A pile of plastic straws collected by Marla Schmidt from Lake Michigan. 

Photo: Marla Schmidt

Three years ago, Marla Schmidt started to unwind and recharge a couple of days a week by walking along Lake Michigan collecting beach glass. On a summer day in 2017, Schmidt noticed how much plastic trash littered the beach. 

“You always see garbage in the environment, but for whatever reason, on this day, there was so much of it that it stopped me in my tracks,” Schmidt says. “So, I picked it up.”

From that point on, she found herself unable to turn away from any litter she came across. She was so shocked by her findings that she began to post pictures of her daily hauls on her Facebook page, captioning them as her “catch of the day.”

“I got such a huge response from people,” says Schmidt. “It was getting so much attention that I created a separate Facebook page for it.” 

That page — Catch of the Day MKE — is a platform for litter and pollution awareness, particularly of single-use plastics. Schmidt began to ask herself questions: “Where is this coming from? Why is so much washing in from the lake?”

She began a search for answers.

Eventually, she came across the Lonely Whale Foundation, a Seattle-based organization whose mission is to “drive impactful, market-based change” on behalf of the ocean. The organization’s #StopSucking movement caught Schmidt’s eye.

marla schmidt

Environmental activist Marla Schmidt is creator of the Facebook page Catch of the Day MKE.

 

It was created as a social-media challenge asking individuals, organizations and brands to pledge their commitment to stop using single-use plastic straws.

“The plastic straw is the poster child for single-use plastic,” Schmidt says. “It’s a convenience we use for maybe 10 minutes, but then it’s in our environments forever.”

The foundation provided Schmidt with some tactics to use with restaurants and businesses, as well as some fact cards.

She began to rework the material to make it her own. The Lonely Whale Foundation used a photo of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose to make its point. Schmidt used a photo of a trout intertwined with a plastic milk jug sealing ring — a more Wisconsin-centric image.

milk jug fish

A fish caught by Jim Bodenstab in Lake Ontario has a growth deficiency due to a plastic milk jug sealing ring.

 

Schmidt reached out to local restaurants to see if they could be convinced to cut down on single-use straws. Bowls Restaurant was the first on her list. The conversation began when Schmidt ordered a kombucha, which was served to her with a plastic straw. 

“I was like, freaking out,” Schmidt says as she laughs.

She struck up a conversation with Bowls Restaurant owner Andy Larson and showed him photos of garbage she collected from the beach, particularly plastic straws. It was tough to convince Larson at first. Some distributors don’t offer alternatives to plastic straws, and the alternatives that do exist can be pricy. 

assortment of plastic

Schmidt uses photos of garbage she has collected like this one to raise awareness of single-use plastic waste.

“I kept on him, and eventually connected him with Aardvark Straws,” Schmidt says. 

After Larson used up his inventory of plastic straws, he switched to Aardvark’s eco-friendly straws manufactured with natural paper and FDA-approved food-grade ink.

“Talking to Marla is what got us to actually dig into it a little and see that paper straws were not that much more expensive than what we were getting,” Larson says.

Schmidt provided Larson with signs to place on tables, with a link to the Catch of the Day MKE Facebook page and text that reads: “Join us in a global movement to eliminate plastic drinking straws from our landfills, our streams, our lakes and our beaches. Straws are only available upon request.” A cartoon image of a somber fox using a straw to suck the planet dry is displayed. 

Larson hasn’t received any complaints about the new paper straws and people have mentioned the signs in a favorable manner.

“Just having the signs out at least may make someone think twice about whether they really need to have a straw and then that may expand to other things like napkin usage and other products,” Larson says. “If everyone did one or two little things like that it would make a huge impact.” 

Schmidt has taken the campaign to other restaurants. She mentions that at some, employees had been trying to make changes to the amount of plastic waste that was being produced but weren’t sure how to move forward.

“People already had the awareness, but they really didn’t do anything about it and they didn’t know how it would be received or what the alternative would be,” Schmidt says.

So far, Schmidt has convinced LuLu Cafe & Bar, juniper61, Cafe Corazon (both locations), Riverwest Co-op Grocery & Cafe, Bowls Restaurant, Mistral, Sheridan’s and The National.

“My goal was to get all of these restaurants on board and get them the publicity so that other restaurants would see it and hop on board,” Schmidt says.

catch of the day sign

A Catch of the Day MKE table sign at Lulu Cafe & Bar.

 

Some Milwaukee restaurants have embraced alternatives on their own. La Merenda and Engine Company No. 3 were two of the first to do so, according to the Cap Times. Other restaurants, like Merriment Social and Goodkind, use compostable straws. The Lost Whale, a new Bay View bar set to open in June, stated in a news release that it will use eco-friendly straws.

 

The movement takes off

While the movement against plastic straws is picking up momentum in Milwaukee, other cities, states and countries have made the change. California has seen plastic-straw bans in restaurants in Malibu, Davis and San Luis Obispo. In Florida, Miami Beach and Fort Myers have implemented plastic-straw bans in restaurants.

Restaurants in Madison have taken to the movement. Green Owl, on Madison’s east side, offers compostable straws by request. Food Fight Restaurant Group, consisting of 20 Madison-based businesses, is working on bringing the movement to all of its members.

Some big companies are getting involved too. McDonald’s has announced that its United Kingdom locations will phase out plastic straws and begin a trial run of paper straws.

McDonald’s decision isn’t the only way the U.K. is making progress in eliminating plastic-straw waste. Prime Minister Theresa May announced a ban on sales of single-use plastics, including straws and cotton swabs. The ban could take effect as early as 2019 and is part of the country’s 25-year environmental plan, which includes actions to keep England’s rivers, beaches and oceans from exposure to harmful plastics. The U.K. has found success in previous plastic-related actions, including charging for single-use plastic bags and banning microbeads — tiny particles of plastic found in exfoliating body washes and facial scrubs. 

Scotland hopes to be rid of plastic straws by 2019 and Taiwan plans to ban single-use plastics, including straws, cups and shopping bags, by 2030.

 

Getting it started, then ‘letting it unfold’

Restaurants aren’t the only businesses that Schmidt is trying to convince to ban plastic straws. She has her eyes set on an ambitious target: Marcus Theatres. Convincing Marcus to stop using plastic straws in theaters would be a colossal achievement. The corporation is headquartered in Milwaukee, but has nearly 700 movie screens throughout Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin. 

“The length of the movie is the length that you’re using the straw,” Schmidt says. 

She hopes that with her success convincing Mistral — the restaurant connected to the Avalon Theater in Bay View — she might be one step closer to convincing Marcus.

With the growing list of Milwaukee restaurants that have joined the movement, it’s likely Catch of the Day MKE will continue to grow. But Schmidt doesn’t want the movement to become an organization or a business. Schmidt says that once the awareness is out there and individuals and businesses take action, she will bow out. 

“It’s more about getting it started and letting it unfold,” she says.

For now, Schmidt is enjoying spreading awareness. 

She was invited to Bay View Montessori to speak with the students about pollution. In preparation, she saved her garbage for a week to show how much was going to the landfill, how much was compost and how much was recycling. She then put her findings from an hourlong walk on the beach in a separate bag. The bag of garbage was noticeably fuller than her garbage from home.

“That was a blast,” Schmidt says with a smile. “Hopefully I got to spark some awareness in some young kids.”

bay view montesiori

After Schmidt's presentation at Bay View Montessori, she found out that a couple of students were inspired to focus on plastic pollution and made poster boards similar to her own. 

She made a similar appearance at Rockwell Automation for its Earth Day event. Schmidt set up a booth and created poster boards with images of previous “catch of the day” posts.

Catch of the Day MKE isn’t a full-time commitment for her. She’s also a licensed massage therapist and, these days, focuses more on life coaching individuals or small groups.

So, what does a life coach suggest for those looking to make a lifestyle change to save the planet?

“Corporations follow the money,” Schmidt says. “If you don’t buy it, they aren’t making it. Where you spend your money and how you spend your money is how you vote for the planet and for the world." 

 

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