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Maura Toomey, from Clean Water Action in Montclair, along with her colleague Allie, recently gave presentations to Watchung School fifth graders about the impact of plastics on the ocean and environment. Toomey is leading an initiative to get local restaurants to reduce their consumption of plastics. COURTESY DRURY THORP

By Tara Kolton
for Montclair Local

Word is continuing to spread around Montclair that straws truly suck for the environment.

A program to reduce the use of non-reusable plastics throughout the community is gaining momentum. A group of local fifth graders recently made it their mission to convince township restaurants to reduce or eliminate the use of plastic straws.

Drury Thorp, a fifth-grade math teacher at Watchung Elementary School, leads a small elective class called Ocean Commotion.

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Drury Thorp and students from her Ocean Commotion class at Watchung School stand in front of Sunrise Bagels, displaying the letters they wrote to local restaurants at Watchung Plaza, imploring them to join the Straws by Request campaign. They hand-delivered these letters and spoke to business owners on April 23. COURTESY DRURY THORP

“We’ve been studying the environmental impact of human behavior on our oceans and the life it contains,” said Thorp. “We wanted to learn more so we contacted Clean Water Action.”

Clean Water Action, a national environmental advocacy group, has an office in Montclair. Thorp had heard about the organization’s Rethink Disposable program, which focuses on issues around waste and pollution from single-use disposables.

Maura Toomey, an organizer with Clean Water Action’s Montclair office, worked to coordinate the group’s Straws By Request campaign in the township this past fall. The initiative partners with local restaurants to reduce their use of disposable plastics, in particular encouraging restaurants not to give out plastic straws with drinks unless the customer requests one.

Thorp invited Toomey to speak to her Ocean Commotion class, and as a result, the students were inspired to write to the restaurants of Watchung Plaza, encouraging them to join the program as well.

“During our discussions, kids shared their stories about seeing garbage on beaches. Several also noted that businesses in Montclair need to do a better job of cleaning up the area around their restaurants so it doesn’t go into storm drains,” said Thorp. “The students were especially surprised to learn that plastics are now being found in fish species human consume.”

For Montclair resident Toomey, working with the Ocean Commotion students was like witnessing her own environmental advocacy come full circle, as Thorp was her second grade teacher back when she attended Watchung School.

“I remember learning about the environment and marine biologist Rachel Carson in her class,” said Toomey. “It was great to see a new generation of young environmentalists in her class.”

After Toomey met with the students this past winter, as well as again in April, the fifth graders composed letters over Earth Day weekend, which they hand-delivered to restaurants around Watchung Plaza on April 23, and spoke to the store owners.

While a couple of the restaurants were closed that Monday, according to Thorp, the students spoke to Mr. Dino’s, Bonjour Montclair Cafe, Koreander, Wah-Chung Restaurant and Sunrise Bagels.

“No one agreed outright, but all were open to having us talk to them and said they would read the letters,” said Thorp.

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Watchung School fifth grade students from the Ocean Commotion class stand with teacher Drury Thorp in front of Local Coffee at Watchung Plaza. Local is a participant in Montclair’s Straws by Request campaign, an effort to reduce the use of plastic straws in local restaurants and businesses. COURTESY DRURY THORP

“Did you know that straws are one of the top 10 marine debris items found on beaches? And that the U.S. consumes 500 million straws a day? That is equal to enough straws to circle the Earth more than 2.5 times each day,” wrote students Nicolas and Zy in their letter to Bonjour Montclair.

Watchung student Kate focused on what happens to marine life when plastic ends up in the ocean. “Fish inhale the tiny microplastics in the ocean, and then it goes into their bodies. Then when we eat fish, we are eating the plastics too.”

“To help us, you can join the Straws by Request program. This means that when you get customers, you don’t automatically hand them straws,” explained Kate in her letter to Koreander. “Only if they ask for a straw, you can give it to them – and perhaps provide straws made out of recycled paper instead. There are many other ways to help us, but this is one small start.”

Watchung restaurants already participating in the effort include Local Coffee, and Bluestone Coffee, which has begun using paper straws and wooden stirrers.

Toomey added that the students plan to go back and follow up soon with the restaurants where they delivered the letters. Fifth grader Graham expressed that he wants to also write letters to the Upper Montclair restaurants.

And, upon learning that other towns and cities like Seattle, Malibu, and Miami Beach have banned straws in restaurants, Nicolas said, “I’m going to write a letter to the Mayor and Town Council to ask them to ban plastics, or at least straws, in Montclair.”

“It’s great to see the kids being environmental leaders in the community, and showing how we all can make a difference,” said Toomey.

More information on the Rethink Disposable and Straws by Request initiatives can be viewed on Clean Water Action’s website, www.cleanwater.org.