Decision comes amid growing activism on the issue

Dan Lewis, President of the Outer Banks Restaurant Association, says one catalyst for the growing effort to eliminate plastic, non-biodegradable straws was a viral video made a few years ago showing a sea turtle having a straw extracted from its nostril — a graphic reminder of what plastics can do to marine life.

      “It was a horrifying video,” Lewis recalled. “I can’t express enough how much this video created the avalanche on this [issue].”

      That avalanche slowed when it reached the Dare County Commissioners at their Aug. 20 meeting. The board was responding to the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church Youth, which at its annual conference passed a resolution supporting “a ban on plastic straws across the state of North Carolina by 2020,” and asking “the NC Legislature and local governments to impose a ban on non-biodegradable plastic straws for use in commercial and domestic capacities.”

      The resolution included elements of theology and economics, quoting Psalms while also asserting that “pollution from plastics will harm the environment which would hurt the local economy.” A letter to the commissioners from the secretary for the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church Youth asked them to “consider our suggestions.”

      After discussion on the issue at the Aug. 20 meeting, the commissioners voted 4-3 against the resolution. Four of them — Steve House, Rob Ross, Jack Shea and Jim Tobin — agreed with Ross's concerns about supporting proposed legislation that would "focus on something with a miniscule effect on plastic in the ocean." For his part, House said to require moving to paper straws would stir up another "save our trees" movement, and he doubted there was support in Raleigh for the proposed legislation.

      Vice Chairman Wally Overman, who supported the ban along with Chairman Bob Woodard and the board’s sole Democrat, Danny Couch, noted that the board had previously supported a plastic bag ban, and argued that it would be "contradictory to not support this."

      Although the commissioners did not sign on to the resolution, there is evidence that efforts to ban and phase out plastic straws are beginning to succeed, locally and across the county.

      A growing number of coastal communities — from Malibu to New York City — have passed or are tackling straw ban legislation. Corporate heavyweights such as American Airlines, Hyatt and Starbucks say they are phasing out plastic straws. And the environmental advocacy group, the Surfrider Foundation, has an Ocean Friendly Restaurant program to acknowledge restaurants across the nation that, among other things, only offer plastic straws upon request.

      In describing the spread of straw awareness and activism, Leslie Vegas, who works with the Ocean Friendly Establishment (OFE) program in Dare County, said, “I think the straw is the poster child for the whole single-use plastic debate.”

      “On the industry side, nobody was prepared for this to happen so quickly,” said Lewis. As a result of these efforts to eliminate plastic straws, he said, there is a current shortage of paper straws that “will be a continual problem for the next year or so.”

      There is one Dare County municipality, the town of Duck, that has passed a resolution encouraging businesses to “become certified by the Plastic Ocean Project as Ocean Friendly Establishments by committing to reduce the use of single-use products such as straws and plastic bags.”

      According to Samantha Burdick, a Duck native and global ambassador for the Wilmington N.C.-based Plastic Ocean Project, one Outer Banks business — the Outer Banks Brewing Station — was officially certified by the Project as an OFE at the beginning of this year. Now about 20 businesses, ranging from restaurants to surf shops, are officially OFE’s for either choosing not to use plastic bags or for serving straws only by request.

      Lewis supports efforts to eliminate plastic non-biodegradable straws and has done so in his restaurants, adding that there are “a good dozen” or so local restaurants that have moved in that direction. While noting that the Restaurant Association has not yet voted on a ban, he said that, “If we did decide to vote on something, it would probably pass unanimously.”

      In Dare County, the debate over single-use plastics is not new. In a move that generated controversy and a backlash, the North Carolina legislature officially repealed the Outer Banks’ eight-year-old plastic bag ban last fall by overriding a veto from Governor Roy Cooper. 

      One key supporter of the repeal effort was N.C. State Representative Beverly Boswell, who was subsequently defeated in the May 2018 Republican primary by Currituck County Commissioner Bobby Hanig. It’s impossible to know if, or to what degree, that position may have contributed to Boswell’s defeat. In a Sentinel interview, Hanig said he didn’t have a position on the bag ban.

      Burdick said that, after the bag ban repeal, the Plastic Ocean Project expanded its OFE program to include businesses that continued to avoid using plastic bags. She observed that Dare County businesses have been very “receptive” to the OFE program, adding that, “I think the repeal of the plastic bag ban had a lot to do with that.”

      In an effort to encourage collective action, the resolution from the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church Youth that landed on the Dare Commissioners’ agenda is also being sent to the commissioners of 16 other coastal counties in the state. Its author is Kenna Berg, a Wilmington native who is now a freshman at N.C. State.

      In a Sentinel interview before the Dare commissioners took their vote, Berg responded that it was very “exciting” to learn that the issue was being addressed by them. “The more that we can get the word out on [plastic straw bans],” she said, “the easier it will be for people to give up the little things.”

      “I would hope that [the commissioners] would at least consider [a ban] even if they don’t want to fully support it,” said Leslie Vegas, who aside from working on the OFE program, has launched a grassroots beach cleanup campaign in the county. “The fact that it is being brought up at all at the commissioners’ meeting is really important and exciting.”

Neel Keller assisted in the reporting for this story.


Publisher, Outer Banks Sentinel

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(4) comments


We have two Commissioners who call themselves "Republicans" who actually voted for this. They need to be replaced in the 2020 election. They are, in realty, both Democrats. I'm sorry I voted for them in 2016. We'd have been better off with real Democrats.


Not surprised by this. If the local municipalities and the county truthfully want to ban plastic they would have passed a ban on plastic bags following the legislative repeal. There's lots of lip service on banning plastic straws and bags, but when it comes down to actually taking action, they pause. Why not pass a county-wide ban on all plastic -- bags, straw, cups, plates, utensils, etc? My guess is that it will never happen because no one really wants to ban plastic despite what they they may say. Take real steps to ban plastic, not just talk about it.

Thinking about the future

Very disappointed to read of this failure. Is there some economic reason why these plastic straws were not banned?


This whole straw this is pretty funny if you step back and think about. There are much larger sources of plastic that no one is worried about, such as disposable drinking cups. Not only that, I would imagine that by far, the vast majority of these straws in up in the restaurant's trash bags, tied up and secure and posing no threat to the ocean. Someone else is saying let's ban *all* plastic. I would imagine that the percentage of items in the local grocery store that does not contain any plastic is extremely small! And let's compare the quantity of that trash to the quantity of drinking straws...which are also probably much more likely to end up in the trash than other plastic.

And how about people that do not have use of their hands? Are they supposed to bring their own straws to the restaurant? And how do they even acquire them if they are banned across the country? I also wonder about the vast increase in wasted paper towels that end up in the trash due to people cleaning up spilled drinks? If you think that's not a concern, you've never been around young children... What other unintended side effects are created?

Better yet, if you're really concerned about straws, start a grassroots campaign to spread to the word about how bad they are and encourage people to decline them at restaurants. Personally, I'm laughing at the lunacy of California and amazed at how many people think it's a great idea. Don't we have anything more serious to worry about?

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