When Milo Cress was 9 years old, he was at a neighborhood cafe, Leunigs Bistro and Cafe in Burlington, Vermont. Hed noticed that whenever hed be at restaurants with his mom, Odale Cress, and order a drink, they automatically came with a plastic straw popped into them.
To Milo, that was odd. It seemed like a waste to me, he told The Daily Beast. Why? Cress saw that a lot of patrons were like himtheyd take the straw out of the glass, setting it aside or throwing it away. And a lot of people who used straws didnt really have to.
So Milo approached the owner of Leunigs Bistro with a proposition: Would they be willing to offer straws (what he termed the offer first policy) before simply sticking them in drinks to help reduce waste? It saved them money, it would be good for the environment, and there wouldnt be so much waste, Milo ticked off his arguments. I was worried adults wouldnt listen to me because I was kid… but I found the opposite to be true.
Leunigs Bistro became the first establishment in the country to question plastic straws dominance in our dining experience, and in the eight years since Milo first asked management to offer straws first, other corporations have joined Leunigs in going one step further by completely banning straws.
He was just a kid, Odale Cress recalled. He didnt think he wanted a straw ban. He just wanted people to have the option of having a straw.
To be sure, Milowho just turned 17wasnt initially intending to save the environment with his proposal; he simply thought it might be a good way to help prevent garbage pileup. Initially, I just was annoyed at the waste, he told The Daily Beast. I started talking to some other people, some of my friends, and convinced them to order drinks without straws. It went from talking to people about reducing their waste to more and more people wanting to ban it.
Milo is precocious, soft spoken but determined. On the phone, he often sounds far older than he is (early on, he passionately stated, This planet is where we live. We have an individual and collective responsibility for saving and protecting it).
But hes always had an eye for problem solving and efficiency, said his mother. At 6, Milo used solar panels donated by a car dealership focusing on European Union-based cars in southern Vermont to work on a unique project, Milo's mother Odale Cress said: a solar powered popcorn machine.
I was the designer and the popcorn salesman, Milo said. He figured that the sun wouldnt always be out, so it would make sense to include some batteries as well so the popcorn machine could still pop some kernels. He eventually served that popcorn to then-Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas.
Milo says he has long had a bit of an urge to try to fix things. Every time I look around, I see things that can change, he said. I cant help but try to fix things.
Its this urge to try to fix things that would otherwise escape others notice that pushes Milo along. Milo saw that Leunigs Bistro went essentially straw-optional and figured other places could follow suit. He started his own organization, Be Straw Free, and spoke at local, then regional, and soon national levels about the offer first policy hed kick-started. By 2010, Burlington's Mayor Bob Kiss became the first in the country to urge offer first as a best practice. Colorado soon followed, recognizing offer first as a best practice for the restaurant industry, and declared July 11 its annual straw-free day in Colorado.
In 2011, Milo went on CNN to talk about how sippy-cup lids could help replace plastic strawsa move that was prescient on his part, as Starbucks has said that it is considering redesigning its lid in the wake of the companys straw ban (Im beginning to think Im ahead of my time, Milo said).
From there… well, you know the rest of the story. Thanks to heartrending images and videos of straws washing up on beaches and of a plastic straw stuck up a sea turtles nose, the plastic straw ban caught fire and began to move from quirky regional law to national corporate brand strategy. This summer alone has seen companies like Starbucks, McDonalds, and Alaskan Airlines turn away from plastic straws and move toward either refashioned sippy lids or ditching all slurp tools altogether in favor of just sipping (unless customers want to bring in a reusable metal straw of their own).
And to a certain extent, thats all because of Milo. When he was initially making his case for the offer-first policy, he approached straw manufacturers about how many straws they produced per year. That number was 500 million strawsper day.
That number spread rapidly and was cited not only on NPR and in The Washington Post, among others, but became the movements single starring statistic. Some critics have said the number doesnt make sense, that its overblown; others have said its not high enough. He didnt invent the number, Odale Cress told The Daily Beast. He asked and they [plastic manufacturers] gave it to him. People took off with the number.
Milo stands steadfastly by his 500 million straws daily figure and said the point is not really about the number so much as the effect of these straws on the environment and our lives. Its something that a lot of people dont really get unless they do active research on it, Milo said. I was certainly guilty of not thinking about what happened to it [straws] when I threw them away. Plastic straws often become entangled in sea animals, which mistake their colorful stripes and bendy tops for food.
Odale Cress said the criticism of the 500 million statistic her son cited is overblown and that Milo is not attached to the numberthat in fact, he wants to be accurate and report the most accurate number possible. He went to the straw manufacturers and asked them, she said. Who else can he ask? She said Milo had gone so far as to suggest to the straw industry that it incorporate reusable straws in its manufacturing repertoire. But no one answered, she said.
Milos mother also noted that some people have asked about straw manufacturer jobs and how plastic straw bans might affect them. Straws, after all, are found in many products. Think about cocktail straws and slurpee straws and restaurant straws and juice boxestheres so much, she noted.
And neither Milo nor his mother think that the germ argumentnot wanting to put ones lips to a glass directly for fear of getting sicksticks. You dont drink beer and wine with a straw, Odale Cress pointed out. And you use metal forks and plates at a restaurant. Almost every argument doesnt hold water (pardon the pun).
Its been eight years since Milo first went to Leunigs Bistro and Cafe and nudged management into simply asking customers if they wanted a straw. It was a small step, but its something that Milo is still enthusiastic about.
Its definitely exciting that so many people are getting involved, Milo said. The 17-year-old hopes to attend college after next year, but his current passion is learning all he can about artificial intelligence with the Vermont legislatures AI task force, where he and others are attempting to figure out how to use artificial intelligence in Vermont.
If Milo ever gets thirsty and wants a drink, he usually just sips. I sometimes carry a metal straw if Im going to have a milkshake or something, he said. but for the most part, I drink my drinks without a straw of any kind.