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.