When Milo Cress was 9 years old, he was at a neighborhood cafe, Leunig’s Bistro and Cafe in Burlington, Vermont. He’d noticed that whenever he’d be at restaurants with his mom, Odale Cress, and order a drink, they automatically came with a plastic straw popped into them.
To Milo, that was odd. “It seemed like a waste to me,” he told The Daily Beast. Why? Cress saw that a lot of patrons were like him—they’d take the straw out of the glass, setting it aside or throwing it away. And a lot of people who used straws didn’t really have to.
So Milo approached the owner of Leunig’s Bistro with a proposition: Would they be willing to offer straws (what he termed the “offer first policy”) before simply sticking them in drinks to help reduce waste? “It saved them money, it would be good for the environment, and there wouldn’t be so much waste,” Milo ticked off his arguments. “I was worried adults wouldn’t listen to me because I was kid... but I found the opposite to be true.”
Leunig’s Bistro became the first establishment in the country to question plastic straws’ dominance in our dining experience, and in the eight years since Milo first asked management to offer straws first, other corporations have joined Leunig’s in going one step further by completely banning straws.
“He was just a kid,” Odale Cress recalled. “He didn’t think he wanted a straw ban. He just wanted people to have the option of having a straw.”
To be sure, Milo—who just turned 17—wasn’t initially intending to save the environment with his proposal; he simply thought it might be a good way to help prevent garbage pileup. “Initially, I just was annoyed at the waste,” he told The Daily Beast. “I started talking to some other people, some of my friends, and convinced them to order drinks without straws. It went from talking to people about reducing their waste to more and more people wanting to ban it.”
Milo is precocious, soft spoken but determined. On the phone, he often sounds far older than he is (early on, he passionately stated, “This planet is where we live. We have an individual and collective responsibility for saving and protecting it”).
But he’s always had an eye for problem solving and efficiency, said his mother. At 6, Milo used solar panels donated by a car dealership focusing on European Union-based cars in southern Vermont to work on a unique project, Milo's mother Odale Cress said: a solar powered popcorn machine.
“I was the designer and the popcorn salesman,” Milo said. He figured that the sun wouldn’t always be out, so it would make sense to include some batteries as well so the popcorn machine could still pop some kernels. He eventually served that popcorn to then-Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas.
Milo says he has long had a bit of an urge to try to fix things. “Every time I look around, I see things that can change,” he said. “I can’t help but try to fix things.”
It’s this urge to try to fix things that would otherwise escape others’ notice that pushes Milo along. Milo saw that Leunig’s Bistro went essentially straw-optional and figured other places could follow suit. He started his own organization, Be Straw Free, and spoke at local, then regional, and soon national levels about the offer first policy he’d kick-started. By 2010, Burlington's Mayor Bob Kiss became the first in the country to urge offer first as a best practice. Colorado soon followed, recognizing offer first as a best practice for the restaurant industry, and declared July 11 its annual “straw-free day” in Colorado.
In 2011, Milo went on CNN to talk about how sippy-cup lids could help replace plastic straws—a move that was prescient on his part, as Starbucks has said that it is considering redesigning its lid in the wake of the company’s straw ban (“I’m beginning to think I’m ahead of my time,” Milo said).
From there... well, you know the rest of the story. Thanks to heartrending images and videos of straws washing up on beaches and of a plastic straw stuck up a sea turtle’s nose, the plastic straw ban caught fire and began to move from quirky regional law to national corporate brand strategy. This summer alone has seen companies like Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Alaskan Airlines turn away from plastic straws and move toward either refashioned “sippy lids” or ditching all slurp tools altogether in favor of just sipping (unless customers want to bring in a reusable metal straw of their own).
And to a certain extent, that’s all because of Milo. When he was initially making his case for the offer-first policy, he approached straw manufacturers about how many straws they produced per year. That number was 500 million straws—per day.
That number spread rapidly and was cited not only on NPR and in The Washington Post, among others, but became the movement’s single starring statistic. Some critics have said the number doesn’t make sense, that it’s overblown; others have said it’s not high enough. “He didn’t invent the number,” Odale Cress told The Daily Beast. “He asked and they [plastic manufacturers] gave it to him. People took off with the number.”
Milo stands steadfastly by his 500 million straws daily figure and said the point is not really about the number so much as the effect of these straws on the environment and our lives. “It’s something that a lot of people don’t really get unless they do active research on it,” Milo said. “I was certainly guilty of not thinking about what happened to it [straws] when I threw them away.” Plastic straws often become entangled in sea animals, which mistake their colorful stripes and bendy tops for food.
Odale Cress said the criticism of the 500 million statistic her son cited is overblown and that Milo is not attached to the number—that in fact, he wants to be accurate and report the most accurate number possible. “He went to the straw manufacturers and asked them,” she said. “Who else can he ask?” She said Milo had gone so far as to suggest to the straw industry that it incorporate reusable straws in its manufacturing repertoire. “But no one answered,” she said.
Milo’s mother also noted that some people have asked about straw manufacturer jobs and how plastic straw bans might affect them. Straws, after all, are found in many products. “Think about cocktail straws and slurpee straws and restaurant straws and juice boxes—there’s so much,” she noted.
And neither Milo nor his mother think that the germ argument—not wanting to put one’s lips to a glass directly for fear of getting sick—sticks. “You don’t drink beer and wine with a straw,” Odale Cress pointed out. “And you use metal forks and plates at a restaurant. Almost every argument doesn’t hold water (pardon the pun).”
It’s been eight years since Milo first went to Leunig’s Bistro and Cafe and nudged management into simply asking customers if they wanted a straw. It was a small step, but it’s something that Milo is still enthusiastic about.
“It’s definitely exciting that so many people are getting involved,” Milo said. The 17-year-old hopes to attend college after next year, but his current passion is learning all he can about artificial intelligence with the Vermont legislature’s AI task force, where he and others are attempting to figure out how to use artificial intelligence in Vermont.
If Milo ever gets thirsty and wants a drink, he usually just sips. “I sometimes carry a metal straw if I’m going to have a milkshake or something,” he said. “but for the most part, I drink my drinks without a straw of any kind.”