Pat Garber harvested some invasive phragmites and turned them into reusable straws. Photo by Pat Garber

By Pat Garber

One frigid day in January, as I was griping to someone about two of my pet peeves, plastic drinking straws, which are polluting our oceans, and the invasive, destructive reeds known as phragmites, which are taking over Ocracoke’s natural marshes, I had a brainstorm. Why not use the much-hated phragmites to replace the also hated plastic straws?

 Phragmites are stiff and hollow like bamboo, which is sometimes used to make drinking straws. I took my scissors out to the patch of phragmites thriving in the marsh near my house, snipped a few, and punched out the dividing flaps. “Voila!” I’ve been using a phragmite straw ever since.

I mentioned my discovery to my friend Rita Thiel, who took the idea to another level.

“Let’s start an Earth Day challenge to rid Ocracoke of plastic straws,” she suggested. “There is a national movement these days to eliminate plastic straws, and it would be great to have Ocracoke in front of the charge.” Rita began looking into alternatives.

Plastic straws are big contributors to the plastic soup clogging our oceans and killing our marine life. Straws that do not end up in waterways add to the landfills, also contaminating our earth.

According to published reports, more than 500 million plastic straws are produced each day in this country, and they are among the top 10 items picked up by volunteers in beach clean-ups. In the last 25 years, more than 6 million plastic straws have been picked up in beach cleanups. Even if someone puts them into recycling, most are too light to make it through the mechanical recycling sorter and end up in the garbage and ultimately landfills.

Scientists estimate that about 269,000 tons of plastic are in the world’s oceans, constituting 90 percent of marine trash. Plastic fibers, invisible to the naked eye, sink to the sea floor. Other plastics are consumed by fish and other marine life.  When tested, 71 percent of sea birds and 30 percent of sea turtles prove to have plastic in their stomachs, which often is fatal.

Straws on a beach.

Lisa Rider, coordinator of the N.C. Marine Debris Symposium, Onslow County, said that no naturally occurring organisms can break down the polymers in plastic, so they never biodegrade. Plastics in marine waters act like sponges, absorbing PCBs, DDT and other harmful chemicals, many of which are now illegal but remain in the environment. 

Sunlight may break plastic down into tiny pieces called micro-plastics. Small fish that consume these plastics are eaten by larger fish, which may in turn be eaten by humans. We may inadvertently be consuming toxins which have been prohibited for decades.

Eliminating plastic straws is one simple way to stop adding to the problem, and straws are easy to live without. 

Most folks would not suffer if restaurants stopped providing them. Parents may need straws for little children, and it’s hard to imagine enjoying your smoothie or milkshake without a straw, but paper ones work quite well.

Rita discovered online there are reusable straws made of bamboo, metal, glass (and maybe in the future, phragmites) that you can carry with you.  Rita also is looking into grants to buy back the plastic straws in island restaurants.

Vince and Sue O’Neal, owners of the Pony Island Restaurant, think eliminating plastic straws is a good idea.

“We need to reduce the amount of plastics going into our ocean and sounds,” said Vince, who also is a commercial fisherman. “It’s killing the fish and poisoning our food source. I’m on board.”

Katy Mitchell, owner of the Magic Bean Coffee Bazaar, has agreed to try to eliminate plastic straws.

“As a community we have a unique opportunity to start the conversation with our visitors and residents about sustainable products,” she said.

Other food service businesses have also expressed their support, and we hope to get everyone involved.

Next time you are in a restaurant say, “No thanks,” when your server hands you a plastic straw for your drink.

Or better yet, imagine a server that does not automatically provide such straws, and if you ask for one, brings you one made of biodegradable paper.

Some paper and alternative straw resources include

Aardvark Paper straws rigid enough not to break down in your drink. Made in the USA from renewable resources, biodegradable and 100 percent compostable. BeOrganic Glass straws are an eco-friendly, tasteful alternative to traditional plastic straws.

Eco at Heart stainless steel straws:

Ice Straws: Make your own straws in the freezer. The mold is food-grade silicone rubber and will quickly make six 8-inch straws of whatever liquid you like. Visit

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