Paper straws are suddenly everywhere.  From celebrity-driven campaigns like #StopSucking to glossy fashion magazines – everyone is talking about straw bans and sustainable alternatives to plastic straws.

As a passive-aggressive environmentalist, passively learning but aggressively following the preaching of sustainability activists, I sometimes wake up from my recycling, plastic-free, composting frenzy, look around and think: am I making a difference? It’s easy to feel discouraged from practicing sustainable habits because, simply put, most of them are inconvenient. Environmental movement can make you feel like a lunatic outsider in no time, especially when for every plastic bag you proudly refuse at a grocery store, a person next to you asks for an extra one, when you separate your waste for a week only to find a recycling bin in your building full of garbage, so you start looking into the nice faces of your nice neighbors trying to figure out which one of these seemingly decent people is capable of such atrocity; or when you are sipping your smoothie from a paper straw on a morning beach walk trying hard to keep the focus on the positive and don’t allow the anger caused by hundreds of plastic cups with plastic straws left by the tourists in the sand interfere with your Zen.

Committing to the sustainable lifestyle is impossible through embracing an outsider status. One will inevitably give up. Knowing that other people care and are making an effort to change things is an important fuel of any movement. To learn about sustainability activism in Miami and how paper straws made their way to the pages of Vogue, I met with Anastasia Mikhalockina, an environmental advocate. Anastasia is a co-founder of  #MiamiIsNotPlastic movement and the founding CEO of LeanOrb, a company offering eco alternatives to plastic disposables such as wheat straw plates, paper straws, wooden cutlery and other food takeout packaging for hotel and restaurant groups. Last year LeanOrb graduated among the finalists from WIN Lab Miami, a business accelerator for women by Babson College. LeanOrb is currently working with clients such as Four Seasons, The W Hotel, Club Space and other companies taking environmental initiative to phase out plastic disposables.Anastasia Mikhalochkina Founder Lean Orb

Anastasia Mikhalochkina, Founding CEO at Lean Orb

You are very vocal about sustainability issues, you inspire people to change their personal habits, help organizations to put in place corporate sustainability practices, give expert advice to music and food festivals. How does one go from sustainability believer to an activist?

We have a huge plastic patch twice the size of Texas floating in the ocean with tonnes of plastic entering from rivers. Most of that litter is disposable plastic such as packaging, containers, lids, bottles plastic straws and utensils. Most of those are personal – use items. Every human on the planet is currently responsible for production of 88 pounds of plastic. The amount of plastic we use daily keeps growing and is expected to increase by 40% in the next decade. The only way to interfere is by changing our habits around the products `we consume and by using our purchasing power to influence companies and policymakers.

We know that plastic needs to be banned, why do we start with plastic straws?

Straws are a nightmare for the environmentalists. People get them for free and get addicted to the convenience of the product but never question its economic value or environmental cost. 500 million plastic straws are used in the US every day.  According to Be Straw Free campaign, 500 million straws could fill over 127 school buses each day.

Plastic straws are among most common piece of trash found during beach clean ups together with plastic bottles, plastic bags, food wrappers and plastic utensils. They are made of low-grade plastic that breaks down into smaller particles and Waste Management has difficult time catching them as they easily escape into the ocean. Rain water often moves the trash into storm drains that empty into the ocean.

Plastic straws won’t solve the problem long-term. What it will do is become a smaller ask into a bigger social change. Straw-free campaign goes beyond residents taking action, we are hoping to get large corporate organizations such as American Airlines, Disney World, Volvo, etc. to slowly become plastic free.

Miami is a waterfront community, the waste we fail to keep on shore becomes a global problem. It is no longer a local problem within a single municipality.”

 Why do plastic bans take so much effort to pass and why do we still need to educate people?

Eco-friendly alternatives always come at a higher immediate cost to businesses, consumers or the government. The role of the environmental education is to explain how the long-term economic, environmental and community benefits will offset the immediate additional spending. Participating in the movement as an individual requires inspiration and discipline. Corporations need significant budget adjustments and shareholder approvals, so the change will be slower and require a series of smaller asks.

Miami Beach has recently joined the most progressive cities in the effort to become plastic-free by banning plastic straws in public places. This didn’t happen overnight. In Miami Beach, Mayor Dan Gelber co-sponsored by Commissioners Gongora & Rosen Gonzalez had passed an ordinance banning plastic straws and stirrers on all of the city’s beaches, parks, piers, docks, marinas, and boat ramps. None of this would be possible without ocean conservation groups such as Miami Waterkeeper, Surfrider Foundation and Debris Free Ocean putting pressure on the politicians and working tirelessly to raise awareness for the issues of single-use plastic in our region in local communities.

How much support do you get from the business community in Miami? Do changes only come as a response to the plastic bans?

Our advocacy relies heavily on the sustainability-driven business leaders, who advocate within their organizations.  Voluntary corporate plastic bans are an important factor contributing to the movement. The team of Cambridge Innovation Center has stopped offering plastic disposables and joined the community’s effort in support of Miami Is not Plastic campaign as part of their corporate culture.  Other community partners such as Under the Mango Tree Cafe, Beaker & Gray, Purdy Lounge,  The Last Carrot In Coral Gables and many more switched to biodegradable products independently and way before the plastic bans were announced.

The new paper straw policy announced by Club Space will be eliminating hundreds of thousands of plastic straws that could otherwise pollute Miami waterways. Space has historically been a pioneer in music, community and culture that has shaped the modern scene of our city. Their commitment to the environmental responsibility is quite remarkable and sends out an important message for all hospitality groups to follow suit.

What’s next? What can everyone do to help individually?

  1. Volunteer: Debris Free Ocean, Miami Water Keeper, Surfrider Foundation
  2. Follow: Lean Orb , Miami Is Not Plastic
  3. Use less plastic
Ekaterina Juskowski

Founder and executive editor of #MIAMIGIRL

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