Stop the Straw -Spring 2018

by: Joshua H. Balling

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

On Nantucket, some 3 million plastic straws are used and discarded each summer, a small part of the 500 million used daily in the United States, according to estimates by the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy. While most end up in landfills, many find their way into the sea.

First-term Select Board member Rita Higgins, who was elected last April on a platform promoting environmental protection, water quality and affordable housing, decided she had to do something about it.

She is now spearheading “Stop the Straw,” a collaborative effort of the town, ReMain Nantucket and the Maria Mitchell Association, which kicked off in late February.

Stop the Straw aims to reduce unnecessary waste and protect the oceans from plastic pollution by asking businesses and restaurants to provide straws and cocktail stirrers only when asked, get rid of them altogether or replace them with compostable paper straws or re-usable options.

“We are really focusing on keeping plastic out of the ocean. It poses a threat to marine life, and to humans as well. We’re finding it in the stomachs of fish. It’s a dangerous argument to say that because straws are small, they don’t have an impact. There’s so many of them, they do. Plastics degrade, but they never go away,” said Higgins, 37, who grew up in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. and now owns her own sustainable landscaping company on the island with her husband Paul Quirke, a stonemason.

According to the World Economic Forum, 80 percent of ocean-debris is land-based, and 80 to 90 percent of that debris is plastic. If no measures are taken, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than sea life, it predicts.

“Our lifeguards made quite a few comments last summer that the majority of trash they were picking up on the beach every morning was red Solo cups and black plastic cocktail stirrers,” Higgins said.

The intent of Stop the Straw is not to force positive change, but encourage it.

“The idea is for it to be voluntary, to create a vested island interest. What we’re doing is trying to focus on reducing the use of straws, to point out that the straw for the most part is unnecessary, to break the habit of automatically putting a straw in a cup unless it’s asked for,” Higgins said.

Participating businesses display a “Stop the Straw” sticker and share information on the campaign and other eco-friendly efforts through tablecards or other methods.

“If we could get 70 percent participation among the restaurants and bars this year, that would be fantastic, and we’ll shoot for 100 percent after that,” Higgins said.

Organizers have also developed a personal pledge, in which consumers commit to forgo straws and ask servers not to bring them with their beverages.

Viable alternatives to plastic straws exist, whether it’s a biodegradable paper straw, or a reusable one, Higgins said. Participating businesses, as well as the public, have been provided information about how to obtain them.

“I really believe, to make progress, the conversation has to be one where we don’t feel guilty, we are simply aware and make informed decisions. I have a soft spot for Cheez-its and I forget my coffee mug and my reusable bags more often than I like to admit,” she said.

“It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being informed, keeping the dialogue open, asking questions, being critical of the things we take for granted and making changes anywhere and any way we can – for example, straws.”

The initiative is an offshoot of another Higgins idea, ACK Local, the outreach arm of town government aimed at promoting the work of the island’s environmental and conservation organizations.

“We set up ACK Local to be a platform for communication and action, and our first action is to try to get rid of straws,” she said.


With a year on the Select Board under her belt, Higgins said she is just getting her feet wet, but is satisfied with her accomplishments so far.

“I wasn’t attached to a particular specific outcome at the end my first year. I knew I was going to learn a lot about how the town functions, but the biggest thing I wanted to learn was how to bring about change. From an institutional, governmental perspective, how does change happen? You

don’t learn that in a year, but it’s become much more clear. I don’t think I realized how clear I was going to have to be with myself and others what I wanted to get done. You have to hold on tight to the things you care the most about, and know the most about,” she said.

“There is a certain part of me that does feel it’s been an achievement in and of itself to be a voice for the environment and water quality on the board, because it was missing.”

One of her primary concerns, which gets at the root of her political and personal philosophy, is not only how many people Nantucket will ultimately be able to support, a concept urban planners refer to as “carrying capacity,” but how much change will accompany the resulting development.

“A lot of people are getting frustrated with the fact that they came to Nantucket for a rural aesthetic, and as we move toward infilling our neighborhoods, we could have 52 percent of our land in conservation, but is it going to be just like living in Manhattan, with Central Park? They’re getting the

sense that our wilderness is being curated and controlled, compared to the Nantucket they are used to. There’s beaches, there’s conservation land, then everything else,” she said.

“We always seem to be at a tipping point. What does that really mean? It’s true that we are tipping toward an urbanized island. Is my generation going to be the last generation to remember the trees behind the house? Now it’s just all neighborhoods.”


Higgins headed to college in 1999 intent on studying political science

and international relations. But she always had a bit of wanderlust, and a summer planting trees in northern Canada convinced her to change her major to environmental studies.

A second summer in the Canadian wilderness only reinforced how much she enjoyed working outdoors, but made her realize the forestry programs she was studying were inadequate to address the destruction caused by the clear-cutting going on.

“I was fascinated by the interconnectedness of the ecosystems as well as the interface of people, policy and the environment,” Higgins said.

“All the conveniences we have, at what cost do they come? We have a system where economic growth is valued in a silo, in which the environmental costs are not appropriately accounted for and result in the degradation of shared natural resources as well as social and economic injustice. I think – I hope – focusing local can have the biggest impact.”

After her summers in Canada, she moved on to forestry and community-development projects in Peru and Ecuador, where she met a group from Nantucket. They convinced her to come to the island, where she worked as a landscaper for two summers and met her future husband, a native of Ireland.

The couple moved across the Atlantic, where they spent six years before returning to Nantucket eight years ago.


Higgins’ company, Wilder Designs, focuses on ecologically-sensitive residential projects whose goal is to improve the landscape in the long term. It is a direct reflection of her conservation philosophy.

“I have really fallen in love with the transformation of outdoor spaces that nobody would consider spending time in, into spaces that engage, enchant and become spaces for people to spend time quietly or to have parties. Getting people outside and connecting to nature – with the garden and residential landscape usually being the most common and most intimate – is what I really enjoy,” she said.

“My interests have shifted over time and I enjoy the challenge of not just creating beautiful landscapes where the color combinations are perfect but instead creating landscapes that are truly functional, that give back more than they take. When most of us start, it is about defining our style and making our mark so that people knew you were there. The most exciting and biggest challenge for me now is creating landscapes where no one ever knew I was there. They feel natural, as if they must have always existed, as well as performing and providing ecosystem functions. As we build more and destroy more, I would love to see nature and a bit of wilderness creep back into our built environment.”


Higgins first drew inspiration from her father, and more recently, from John Muir, the influential Scottish-American naturalist, conservation-

ist, author and early advocate of protecting the country’s wilderness.

“My dad always took us on random weekend trips to explore the town and country. He loved flowers and he loved Latin. I studied Latin for four years, which sometimes I think was probably the main reason I got into plants and landscapes, just so that I could put those years of Latin classes to use,” she said with a laugh.

“I just read a biography of John Muir which has really fortified the direction I would like to take with my work. We have consistently undervalued nature – in its absolute necessity for our existence when it comes to clean drinking water and nutritional food – but even more so, very

simply, the human connection and the benefits, from mental health to physical health, that nature

provides,” she continued.

“We have only been a more urban than rural world on Nantucket since 2010 or so. Discussion about the state of the environment can be frustrating and sad but reading about John Muir, what he saw happening and what he fought for over 100 years ago, has been fortifying, even more so because he took respite and gained health and strength by heading into the woods. That always makes me feel better, too, which is why we really need to make sure there are always woods to go to and clean oceans to jump into for a good clearing of the head.”

In the end, Higgins wouldn’t live anywhere else.

“I love the sense of community, and the strength of community here. I can never get that upset when I realize I live on Nantucket. I studied all this development and the environment, and it wasn’t until I moved away from Montreal where I was studying that I realized I’m not a city person. Nantucket is one of the places where I can have that rural/urban, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience.” ///

Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today and the managing editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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