A campaign to eliminate plastic straws is sucking in thousands of converts

It started so innocently. A kid ordered a soda in a restaurant.

“It came with a plastic straw in it,” Milo Cress recalled. He glared at the straw for a while. “It seemed like such a waste.”

Not only did Cress yank the plastic from his drink, but he also launched a campaign, “Be Straw Free,” targeting all straws as needless pollution. He knocked on the doors of restaurants in Burlington, Vt., where he lived at the time, and asked managers not to offer straws unless patrons asked. He was 9 years old.

Today Cress, 15, is one of the faces of a growing movement to eliminate plastic straws. They have been found wedged in the nose of a sea turtle, littering the stomachs of countless dead marine animals and scattered across beaches with tons of other plastics.

Why single out pollution as small and slim as a drinking straw?

A group of marine biologists in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, helped remove a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose. (COASTS/YouTube)
Straws are among the most common plastic items volunteers clean from beaches, along with bottles, bags and cups, conservationists say. Americans use half a billion straws every day, at least according to an estimate by Be Straw Free, based on information from straw manufacturers. That many straws could wrap around the Earth 2½ times.

The slightest wind lifts plastic straws from dinner tables, picnic blankets and trash dumps, depositing them far and wide, including in rivers and oceans, where animals often mistake them for food.

And they are ubiquitous. Nearly every chain restaurant and coffee shop offers straws. They’re in just about every movie theater and sit-down restaurant. Theme parks and corner stores and ice cream shops and school cafeterias freely hand them out.

But they are starting to disappear because of the awareness campaign Cress and dozens of conservation groups are waging. Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom bans them, as do the food concession areas of Smithsonian Institution museums.

Keith Christman, a managing director for plastics markets at the American Chemistry Council, which promotes plastics manufacturers and fights attempts to ban plastic, said in a National Geographic article two months ago that the group would do the same for attempts to eliminate plastic straws.

But a spokeswoman for the council said “we won’t be able to offer comment” or say whether the group backs Christman’s claim.

The movement was growing at a slow, steady pace when Cress joined it six years ago, but it exploded after a YouTube video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose went viral in 2015. The cringe-inducing effort to pull the plastic out of a bloody nostril outraged viewers — 11.8 million so far.

Cress has launched a website on the issue, partnered with several organizations that support the cause and testified against straws in the Vermont legislature. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) cited Cress’s activism in a 2013 proclamation that made July 11 a straw-free day in the state.

Manhattan Beach outside Los Angeles banned all disposable plastics, including straws. Berkeley, Calif., is considering a ban. Restaurants in San Diego; Huntington Beach, Calif.; Asbury Park, N.J.; New York; Miami; Bradenton, Fla.; London; and British Columbia have pledged to ban straws or withhold them until patrons ask for them.

The Plastic Pollution Coalition estimates that 1,800 “restaurants, organizations, institutions and schools worldwide have gotten rid of plastic straws or implemented a serve-straws-upon-request policy,” said Jackie Nunez, founder of a group called the Last Plastic Straw.

More than 20 such restaurants near Wrightsville Beach, N.C., signed up last year to be certified by a coalition of groups as establishments that won’t serve straws unless they’re requested.

Ginger Taylor, a volunteer who cleans trash from the five-mile beach, said the campaign is working, at least anecdotally.

“I’ve been picking up straws on Monday morning on that same stretch of beach for five years,” she said. Four years ago, she picked up 248 straws in about two weeks. The next two years, she collected about 500. But the number fell to 158 after the awareness campaign started last year.

Diana Lofflin, founder of a group called Straw Free, said the turtle video inspired her year-old organization. Her volunteers persuaded California’s Joshua Tree Music Festival to go straw-free in May. They also knock on the doors of Orange County, Calif., homeowners who grow bamboo to ask whether they can harvest a little and make reusable straws from the plant. Like several other groups, Straw Free sells reusable bamboo straws online, theirs in packs of 10 for $1.50.

Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a concessions company that partners with the National Park Service to provide food and lodging at Rocky Mountain National Park, the Grand Canyon and other national parks, offers straws at dispensers but posts fliers asking patrons not to use them.

“Humans didn’t really evolve around straws. It’s not like we have to consume fluids with this appendage. What really, what is this?” said Catherine Greener, vice president of sustainability for the company.

The prevailing notion says flexible straws were invented in the late 19th century by Marvin Stone, a D.C. man who didn’t like how the traditional ryegrass straw people used for drinking would disintegrate and leave gritty residue in his mint juleps. Stone wrapped strips of paper around a pencil, glued the strips together and test-marketed the contraption, and in 1888, the disposable straw was born, according to the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

The new paper straw was limited mostly to use in hospitals, which used the innovation to avoid spreading disease. Usage widened during the polio epidemic that began in 1900 as people avoided putting their mouths on others’ drinking glasses. Finally in the 1960s, restaurants offered a new invention: a disposable plastic straw.

It’s a convenience people seem to use arbitrarily. Millions drink soda with a straw, but hardly any suck beer through one. Hot-coffee drinkers gulp directly from cups but stick straws in iced coffee. Bar hoppers drink highballs from a glass, but mixed cocktails come with a straw.

“There are plenty of times when straws just aren’t necessary,” said Aaron Pastor, a restaurant consultant and one of dozens of vendors who sell stainless steel, bamboo and other reusable straws online.

“I’ve sold thousands of [reusable] straws,” Pastor said, but it’s not a booming business. “This isn’t paying my mortgage.”

Pastor said chastising plastic straw users isn’t his style. “If your goal isn’t to preach and come across as ‘I’m better than you,’ that’s best. I just say they’re wasteful, they end up in oceans and, hey, do you really need one.”

At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, Melissa and Brian Charon said no. The parents, visiting from Boston with small children who grabbed at food spread on a table, shrugged when told the museum doesn’t offer straws.

“It’s fine with me. I don’t really miss it,” Melissa said. Then Brian added: “I look in the drawer in our kitchen every day and say, ‘Why do we have so many straws?’ ”

At Xanterra’s national parks concessions, “We want people to think about this throwaway society, especially in these beautiful places,” Greener said. “They can take to the air. It’s easy for them to get blown around.”

The anti-straw message is also getting blown around. Greener was looking for composting tips a few years ago when she came across a profile of Cress, who had partnered with a recycling center in Colorado called Eco-Cycle.

Greener wanted to talk to the kid, who by then was powering the anti-straw movement in Colorado, where his family had moved. Based on their conversation, Greener decided to promote straw awareness at Xanterra’s concessions.

“He’s obviously a gifted teen. He’s probably running for Congress. He was very inspirational and innovative,” Greener said. “All I wanted to do at his age was get my driver’s license. I look at kids like that, and it makes me very hopeful.”

Cress isn’t running for office — yet. He said he’s enjoying a six-year passion that has taken him to Australia, Portugal, Germany, France, Boston, Washington and many high schools all over to deliver speeches.

“My favorite part about it has been getting to talk to other kids and listening to their ideas,” Cress said. “It’s really cool, and I think it’s really empowering. I certainly feel like I’m listened to and valued in a larger community, and I really appreciate that.”

By Darryl Fears, June 24, The Washington Post

Recording fish song to make fisheries more sustainable

What do fish sound like?

When Gulf Corvina breed, their mating calls could be likened to an immense, underwater roar. Now, a group of researchers have found a way to use the deafening din to save these fish from exploitation. Using underwater microphones, they’ve developed a method for converting sound recordings of the fish’s calls into precise population estimates. Those could inform more accurate catch limits, they say, that would ultimately make corvina fisheries—and others—more sustainable.

Fish stocks worldwide are being depleted by overfishing, which often boils down to inaccurate population surveys that can lead to overly-liberal catch quotas. For the Gulf Corvina especially, overfishing over the last 20 years has taken its toll; the fish now has a vulnerable status.

Part of the problem for this species, the researchers explain in Scientific Reports, is that every year the entire population of two million corvina migrate to one spot in the Northern Gulf of California, Mexico, to spawn. There, males attract mates by producing their spectacular cacophony—so loud that fishers can easily locate them from the surface, and haul up more than a million over the course of three weeks. The researchers realized that if they could instead use the noise to monitor the population, there might be a solution for these fish.

Over the course of eight surveys in 2014, they used underwater hydrophones to record the corvinas’ roar at the Colorado River Delta where they spawn. The louder the din, the more fish there were assumed to be. But because of the way sound travels underwater it can be misleading, meaning the recordings alone couldn’t provide a dependable estimate. So the researchers paired them with sonar. This method pings sound waves into the water that bounce off objects and create a detailed picture of how many objects—i.e. fish—there are beneath the surface.

Sonar would be too costly to use for every population estimate. But in this case, the researchers only used it to sample the population size at different points in the survey, adding a layer of detail to the sound recording. If it worked, this would prove whether there was a link between more noise and more fish. And it did: “When all the fish are packed into the spawning grounds and males are chorusing during the peak spawning activity, we find a tight correlation between sound and abundance,” says co-author Brad Erisman from the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. “Now you can imagine a situation, if it’s predictable, [where] you can just have the underwater microphones out there,” he says. “Because you know this sort of sound intensity and this loudness corresponds to about this many fish. Then you have a very powerful monitoring capability.”

The researchers were thus able to determine that at peak spawning, there were between 1.53 and 1.55 million corvina in the delta. Compared to more traditional surveying tools, the advantage of this method, they showed, is its cost-effectiveness and efficiency. Hydrophones can easily and regularly be deployed to monitor the population, which could inform more accurate catch quotas and move the fishery towards sustainability.

As a tool, it also holds promise for other species. Commercial fish like pollock, cod, haddock, and grouper all produce calls during spawning. Now the researchers say they’re looking into how their method could be used to set sustainable catch limits for those species, too.

Source: Rowell TJ et al. “Estimating fish abundance at spawning aggregations from courtship sound levels.” Scientific Reports. 2017.

Ex-FBI investigator in hot pursuit of  Washington’s abandoned apples

The hundreds of apple varieties that have been found in recent years are stunning in their diversity and the window they open into the tastes and habits of the past.

By KIRK JOHNSON, The New York Times

STEPTOE, Whitman County — David Benscoter honed his craft as an investigator for the FBI and the U.S. Treasury, cornering corrupt politicians and tax evaders. The lost apple trees that he hunts down now are really not so different. People and things, he said, tend to hide in plain sight if you know how and where to look.

David Benscoter, a former FBI investigator, prunes apple trees to stimulate new shoots at Steptoe Butte State Park in Spokane. The trees are the remnants of an apple orchard planted in the 1890s by Robert Burns. (RUTH FREMSON/NYT)

“It’s like a crime scene,” Benscoter, 62, said as he hiked down a slope toward a long-abandoned apple orchard planted in the late 1800s. “You have to establish that the trees existed and hope that there’s a paper trail to follow.”

About two-thirds of the $4 billion apple industry is now concentrated in Washington state — and 15 varieties, led by the Red Delicious, account for about 90 percent of the market. But the past looked, and tasted, much different: An estimated 17,000 varieties were grown in North America over the centuries, and about 13,000 are lost.

From New England through the Midwest and the South to Colorado and Washington, where small family farms were long anchored by an orchard, most apple trees died along with the farms around them as industrial-scale agriculture conquered American life a century ago.

But some trees persisted. They faded into woods, or were absorbed by parks or other public lands. And the hundreds of varieties that have been found in recent years are stunning in their diversity and the window they open into the tastes and habits of the past.

Mother apples, for example, were good for making dessert. If you wanted less juice, you went for a Limber Twig. Aesthetic perfection and pretty names were once unimportant. The Rambo apple was described in one old guidebook as “speckled, with large rough dots.”

Apples are where food meets history, hunters say, and a community has risen up around the pursuit of them. Benscoter fell into it after retirement here in Eastern Washington when a friend with a disability asked him to pick apples from an old orchard behind her house, and no one could identify what they were. John Bunker, an apple hunter in Maine, became entranced by the old trees he found growing in the woods. Lee Calhoun, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, started hunting in North Carolina and began to see old apples as a remnant of faded Southern life.

Now, some old varieties have become available again, through small specialty nurseries like the co-op that Bunker helped start in Maine and through university agricultural programs. Commercial growers, however, said old apples had faded for a reason and were probably not coming back.

“They’re hard to grow,” said Mac Riggan, the director of marketing at Chelan Fresh, which has 26,000 acres of fruit trees, mostly apples, in central Washington. Old varieties, Riggan said, either bruise easily, do not store well or do not produce enough apples per tree. And economic pressure is relentless. “Land costs money,” he said.

Benscoter said that because of his investigative background, and because apple growing had come much later to this corner of the West, his methods were different from those of hunters in older parts of the nation.

Often, he said, library archives or county records show what was grown and available, which helps him identify old trees. A woman recently sent him a catalog from 1912 she had found in her attic. It listed more than 140 apple varieties then available in Washington. Documents from county fairs — what apples were offered for judging — have provided more evidence.

Most apple varieties, produced by chance intermingling of pollen from neighboring trees on family farms, cannot be definitively identified by DNA, so the history is important. Plant scientists said old varieties might have something to teach as well about evolution or climate, in looking at the qualities that kept a particular tree going despite the odds.


“That’s my scientific curiosity: How did this plant do it? How did it survive when others died?” said Amit Dhingra, an associate professor of horticulture at Washington State University who works with Benscoter and the Whitman County Historical Society on the Lost and Heritage Apples of the Palouse project

The bittersweet element in apple-tree hunting is that failure often plays a big role.

Consider, for example, the story of Robert Burns. He was a young farmer who came to southeast Washington State in 1888, according to county records.

Burns was in his early 20s, and he first tried wheat, but the torrential rains of 1893 destroyed the crops. He then turned his hand to growing fruit but, in his inexperience, planted mostly apple varieties that ripen in summer and fall. It turned out to be a disastrous choice.

By the mid-1890s, the railroads were changing everything, and winter apples had seized the market because they could better withstand shipment to markets back East. The dream of a Burns orchard stumbled and fell, and by 1899 he was bankrupt.

But he planted at least one Dickinson apple tree that survived, and a Nero tree, too — both believed lost until Benscoter rediscovered them.

Debbie Druffel and her husband, Roy, wheat farmers in nearby Pullman, are now growing tiny grafted shoots of Dickinson and Nero in their garage. They became fascinated by apples when they found an abandoned orchard bordering one of their fields, and they now hope to grow an entire orchard of the lost and found behind the house.

“If Dave keeps finding stuff, we’ll keep planting it,” Debbie Druffel said.

But on bigger farms, new varieties, not old ones, have the money and momentum, like the Cosmic Crisp, developed here in Washington and recently planted on a commercial scale.

On a recent morning at Steptoe Butte State Park, where Benscoter has focused his work, he hiked toward an Arkansas Beauty apple tree, perhaps the only one on the planet now bearing fruit.

The tree was about 12 feet tall and twisted with age. Benscoter hoisted up the chain saw he had carried out from his truck and pruned off some small branches, which will stimulate the tree to grow new shoots that can be grafted next year onto other trees. And so another relic from America’s past will live on.

Originally published June 1, 2017 at 6:01 am, updated June 2, 2017 at 12:30 am

Monkey-Human Economy

The temple where monkeys trade with humans

Thirty or so years ago, a long-tailed macaque at the Uluwatu Temple in Bali, Indonesia, took something from a visitor. A pair of sunglasses, maybe, or a hat. Which wouldn’t have been so unusual—monkeys are quite the little scamps—but something unexpected happened next: the visitor, or perhaps a helpful member of the temple’s staff, offered food in return for the stolen goods. The monkey made the swap. And so began what’s become a thriving, one-of-a-kind monkey-human economy.

There are several ways to think about this interspecies marketplace, which ethologists led by Fany Brotcorne and Jean-Baptiste Leca of the University of Lethbridge describe in the journal Primates. Brotcorne and Leca’s group, which spent four months documenting interactions at Uluwatu, is especially interested in how this behavior arose and spread. They found that the exchanges—which among other objects included glasses, hats, shoes, hair clips, jewelry, cameras and phones—varied in frequency between monkey groups living near the temple. That and the fact that monkey-human trading is found nowhere else suggest it’s truly a cultural tradition, with successive generations of temple macaques learning by watching their enterprising peers.

That observation “might provide some insight into the evolution of a traditional token economy in hominins,” write the researchers. It also speaks to the considerable intelligence and behavioral adaptability of macaques. In captivity, experimental token-exchange paradigms are used to investigate a host of cognitive properties: social learning, memory, gratification delay, numerical judgement, economic behavior. There’s a lot of smarts underlying the Uluwatu monkeys’ antics. Insights into human evolution aside, they underscore the infrequently-appreciated richness of monkey minds. “Unfortunately there is still a bias in cognitive science,” says Leca, “with a stronger emphasis put on great apes than on monkeys when it comes to seemingly complex processes such as intelligence and culture.”

There’s also a broader conceptual aspect to the findings. In recent years, many anthropologists have reframed their work as anthrozoology—studying not just human societies, but our entanglement with animals in so-called multispecies communities. The terms might sound academic, but they’re made explicit at the Uluwatu Temple. Not only did the macaques have ready access to people and their food; temple staff and visitors, who follow Balinese Hindu philosophies that regard temple monkeys as sacred and deserving of tolerance, accepted them. The resulting economy “was based on coexistence between these two species,” Leca says.

That’s likely to change in the future. The temple’s monkeys sometimes keep what they take, says Leca, and complaints by upset tourists have led temple staff and local communities to discourage people from participating. Eventually the tradition will disappear. But our memories will remain as testimony to the complex relationships that human and monkey societies can build together.

Source: Brotcorne et al. “Intergroup variation in robbing and bartering by long-tailed macaques at Uluwatu Temple (Bali, Indonesia).” Primates. 2017.
Image: Brotcorne et al. / Primates

Idaho, Oregon researchers work on stevia seed line

Some of the leading research being done on stevia, a plant that is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar, is taking place in the Treasure Valley area of Idaho and Eastern Oregon.

 Sean Ellis, Capital Press

Published on May 23, 2017 10:51AM

Researchers in Oregon and Idaho are trying to develop a line of stevia seeds that would make growing the plant economically viable in the U.S.

(Wikipedia) Researchers in Oregon and Idaho are trying to develop a line of stevia seeds that would make growing the plant economically viable in the U.S.

NAMPA, Idaho — Researchers in the Treasure Valley area of Idaho and Oregon are trying to develop a reliable seed line for stevia, a plant that is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar.

Once that happens, the plant could be an attractive option for the region’s farmers.

But the plant likely won’t be grown commercially here until researchers learn how to reliably produce the small shrub from seed.

Stevia is used as a natural sweetener in drinks and food.

Unlike potatoes, corn and other crops that farmers have bred for hundreds of years, stevia has only been researched for about 50 years, said Cheryl Parris, research and development manager at S&W Seed Co.

Because of that, there is currently too much genetic diversity in stevia to grow it from seed, so it’s being grown from clones, or rooted cuttings, that are produced in a greenhouse and then transplanted into the field.

The labor and expense involved in growing stevia that way at 40,000 plants an acre makes it too expensive to be an attractive alternative to commercial farmers in the U.S., Parris said.

The company’s stevia research is centered in Nampa. Parris is trying to develop a reliable seed line that farmers can plant.

She said this is an ideal region for growing stevia. The company has received a lot of inquiries from farmers interested in growing stevia seed.

“There is a lot of variability in the plants because there is so much that hasn’t been bred out yet,” she said. “It will become more ideal as we develop a seed line. It’s still really an emerging market in the United States because of the cost at this point.”

The wide genetic diversity in stevia means the progeny is usually not as good as the parents, said Clint Shock, director of Oregon State University’s research station in Ontario.

“How to efficiently propagate stevia by seed hasn’t been solved,” said Shock, who has researched the plant for more than a decade. “In order for it to be competitive in the U.S., you need to be able to cross reliably and efficiently from seed. That is the Achilles heel of growing stevia in the United States.”

Most of the world’s stevia is grown in nations with much lower labor costs, Shock said.

“The competitive advantage now is for places that have super cheap labor,” he said.

Parris and Shock are also trying to breed out the sometimes bitter aftertaste associated with stevia.

“We’re trying to develop a plant that tastes better, doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste and can be used more as an additive to food products,” Parris said.