KORVA COLEMAN, HOST:
Impressive statistics can spread quickly. The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Fox News, CNN and Time magazine have all reported that Americans throw away 500 million plastic straws every day. The National Park Service and numerous environmental groups have cited the figure. So has NPR. That figure is suspect. Polls about straws conducted by market researchers range from 170-390 million. Milo Cress came up with that 500 million tally. He was 9 years old at the time. Now he's just turned 17. I asked him how he calculated the number.
MILO CRESS: Well, it was some time ago when I was 9. And at the time, I was curious how many straws we used and threw away. And so I looked around online, but I couldn't find any statistics on what our daily straw use was. And so I decided to contact the people that I thought would know, if anyone would know, who were the United States straw manufacturers. And so I contacted three straw manufacturers, and I asked them what they estimated to be the size of the United States straw market per day, how many straws we use and threw away in the United States. And the average estimate they gave me was 500 million straws.
COLEMAN: Does the use of the number bother you in any way? Are you troubled?
CRESS: Not at all. I hesitate to claim that's it's a definitive fact because, as I said, it is just an estimate. And people who want to pass it off as a definitive fact are missing the spirit in which I came up with the number, which is that we use too many straws.
COLEMAN: How big of a pollution problem are straws compared to other types of plastic in the environment? Are people just looking at the 500 million straws as a shocking statistic?
CRESS: I don't believe so. As a matter of fact, Jesse Mechling from the Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts has told me that straws are one of the most common items that wash up on beaches.
COLEMAN: What about something like disposable plastic bags?
CRESS: The reason that I focused on straws in particular is because, for me, it was one step that I could take as a kid. Often, for kids, it's hard to get your parents involved in an environmental issue, where ordering a drink without a straw is something that kids can do already. It's something that anyone can do because anyone who can order a drink can ask for one without a straw whenever they don't want to or need to use one. And it was something that I could encourage my friends to do. When my friends started doing it, I think they felt really empowered, not only to use fewer plastic straws, but to approach plastics throughout their lives with a different viewpoint.
COLEMAN: Environmentalist Milo Cress will soon start his senior year of high school in Shelburne, Vt. He joined us on Skype. Milo, thanks for talking to us.
CRESS: Thank you.