Skip to main content
  • Woman Hikes through Yellowstone Wilderness on the way to Wrangler Lake

    Choose to be Straw Free

The straw-free program at the national parks helps save the environment

A plastic straw seems innocuous in terms of the larger environmental picture of all that is crowding our landfills and increasing our carbon footprint. But it’s not. Consider that these little conveniences are made from oil, a non-renewable resource. Energy is used to extract the oil and manufacture the straws. And it takes gas to run the trucks that deliver straws to consumers. That doesn’t even take into account the packaging around straws. Straws may be small but there are millions of them — some 500 million of them used every day by Americans alone, most of which end up in landfills or, worse, the ocean. Straws are among the most common plastic debris found during coastal cleanups. Sadly, marine animals and birds also ingest many of them, enabling the toxicity to travel up the food chain.

Laid end-to-end, straws used in the United States in one day would circle the planet more than two-and-a-half times.

Not innocuous at all.

And when we think about it, not necessary, either. Most of us do not need to sip our beverages through a tube, which is why organizations such as the National Park Service and its concessioners, beginning with Xanterra Travel Collection®, have made a commitment to reduce straw consumption.

It all started in 2011 with Milo Cress, then a 9-year-old boy in Boulder, Colo., who realized the negative environmental impact of straws and began contacting businesses to stop the practice of automatically handing them out. Milo’s Be Straw Free campaign is now facilitated by Eco-Cycle and has been embraced by restaurants, schools, environmental groups, and concerned citizens.

It also caught the attention of Catherine Greener, Vice President of Sustainability of Xanterra Travel Collection®. “I reached out to Milo. I read about him through his work with Eco-Cycle,” she says. “His work with Ted’s Montana Grill, the first restaurant to implement the program, inspired me and I knew it was right for Xanterra and our stewardship as well as our solid-waste goals.”

Xanterra launched its own Choose To Be Straw-Free initiative, implementing an “offer first” policy at some of its national park restaurants. All of Xanterra’s national park concessions in Death Valley, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Zion now participate, and the practice is a Xanterra corporate initiative and best practice. It meshes nicely with Xanterra’s longtime environmental ethic and commitment to a “softer footprint,” which the company describes as “providing experiences for our guests and employees while protecting the environment and benefiting the places and communities where we operate.”

From one boy’s passion to a nationwide effort, the straw-free movement is here to stay. While it’s difficult to measure exactly how much straw waste has been reduced because the calculations must come from multiple departments and sources, it’s irrefutable that the concept has grown exponentially.

The National Park Service and the National Restaurant Association, among others, embrace it as a food and beverage industry best practice. Greener says Xanterra’s Choose to be Straw Free program is “now embedded into our larger Environmental Management System,” which will be updated this year. “This initiative is part of our program to significantly reduce our solid waste that goes into landfills. There will be other activities that will build on the success of this initiative that will decrease our waste,” she says.The best news is that as consumers, in the national parks and out of them, we can all be part of it.

To start, we can just say no to straws. If we really want or need one, we can choose reusable straws and carry them with us. We can also pay attention to sustainability initiatives in our national parks and communities and support them by taking the actions required. In the end, it comes down to mindfulness.

“It’s important that we be conscious of our decisions,” Greener says, “including the smallest ones, like ‘do I really need this straw?’ We have to be conscious of the impact those decisions have on our beautiful places on earth. We all can have a softer footprint on the places that we love.”

Yes, we can.