Why to have your last straw before Mother Nature has hers

By Cee Cee Huffman 

A thirsty child opens his lunch box and rips the straw from his juice box. A barista calls a name, slides an iced coffee across the counter and places a straw on top. A young waiter reaches into their black canvas apron and tosses a handful of white, paper-wrapped plastic straws on the table.

Without a second thought, they rip off the wrappers and enjoy their drinks.

Every day, Americans use 500 million plastic straws, but few stop to think about what happens to their straws once their cups are empty.

“You take something and you throw it where? Away,” environmental artist Bryant Holsenbeck said. “We live in away. People think away is a magic place, and it’s not.”

If a straw makes it to the trash, it’s picked up and driven to a landfill. Unable to be recycled, it will spend the next several years slowly breaking down. If it gets lost along the way, it becomes part of the 7.5 percent of the total plastic in our environment.

Plastic straws are the fifth most common plastic product found in our oceans while plastic itself is the most common marine debris found in our oceans. This debris is made up of single-use plastics, or plastics that are only used once before being thrown away, like grocery bags, water bottles and straws.

“The straw is just that single object that so many of us have encountered all our lives,” filmmaker Linda Booker said. “So, we never really stop to think about it.”

Sometimes fish might encounter microplastics, or pieces of plastic products the size of a sesame seed and mistake it for dinner.  Though harmful to the fish, it could also be harmful to you if that fish ends up on your plate.

From Rye to Oil-Based Plastic

In the 1880s, Marvin Stone was drinking his mint julep through a natural rye grass straw when it began disintegrating. A manufacturer of paper cigarette holders, he fastened together his own paper straw by wrapping strips of paper around a pencil and gluing them together.

He patented his invention in 1888 and began producing it in 1890. In a matter of time, people everywhere were drinking from Stone’s paper straws.

Over 50 years later, corporations discovered oil-based plastic straws were cheaper to mass-produce. Plastic straw quickly became the new norm, and they weren’t going anywhere.

Linda Booker is the director and producer of “Straws,” a documentary that details the history of and danger that plastic straws pose to our environment.

Booker said she remembers the moment she started noticing that straws were everywhere.

“Sometimes they get used, a lot of times they don’t,” Booker said. “We just go about our day and these objects are going into our drinks sort of vicariously, whether we ask for them or not.”

The Turtle that Started a Movement

She said people started paying attention when marine biologist Christine Figgener posted a video of a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose online in Aug. 2015.

Figgener and her team wrestled with the turtle, holding its head still while they struggled to pull a deteriorating straw out of its nostril. The video received over 34 million views on YouTube,  and the turtle quickly became the poster child of the anti-straw movement.

However, Booker said that even after becoming aware of the problem, it’s still difficult to understand the scope.

Blair Bowden, a senior studying marine science at UNC-Chapel Hill, became more conscious of the straws she encountered when she took marine biology.

Bowden said she found the Stop Sucking campaign for a straw-less ocean and has been telling all of her friends and family about it since.

“Even though it’s not a cure-all for the environment, it’s a small step in the right direction,” Bowden said.

Booker said plastic straws are a relatable and simple way to tackle the bigger plastic problem. For now, she’s glad people are learning about it.

“It’s kind of like, shocking,” Booker said. “When you really think about exactly how prevalent it really is, and how many of them there are, and how they’re never going to go away. It can really be kind of scary.”

As scary as straws are, they’ve become difficult to avoid or live without while other similar single-use plastics are everywhere.

Scrapping the Straw

Having created art with recycled materials for decades,  Holsenbeck wanted to see if she could go a year without single-use plastics. She documented her journey in her book, “The Last Straw: A Continuing Quest for Life Without Disposable Plastic.”

“It’s made to use once and last forever,” Holsenbeck said. “That’s a bad equation, right?”

Holsenbeck said it was a challenge to find alternatives to her daily, plastic wrapped items, but now she knows where to find sustainable alternatives. Today, she has accepted some single-use plastics back into her life but avoids them when possible.

Reducing Your Plastic Use

Blair Pollock, solid waste manager for Orange County, said there are three simple things you can do to reduce your use plastics without completely cutting them out.

First, reusable water bottles.

Pollock said carrying a water bottle or canteen saves you the cost of buying bottled water while also being 47 percent more energy efficient.

“There’s savings to you immediately as an individual and there’s planetary savings,” Pollock said. “That’s probably the most obvious and best economically.”

Pollock said for the average shopper, carrying reusable shopping bags in your car is also an easy and effective way to avoid plastic. Lastly, of course, Pollock said to reject plastic straws.

If you find that you really need or miss your straw, try buying a reusable straw and carrying it with you. However, you likely won’t miss it since for many, drinking from straws is habitual but unnecessary said Pollock.

“Once you begin to change your habits, it just becomes embedded with you,” Pollock said.

Pollock said you have to be quick-on-the-draw to stop your barista or waiter from handing you a plastic straw.  Still, it’s one of the easiest things you can do to reduce the number of single-use plastics in your life.

Edited by Diane Adame

A performance troupe achieves a mission with a future of uncertainty

The Pauper Performance Troupe faces financial stress that will require more than the power of music to alleviate.

By Karen Stahl

The young woman’s eyes brimmed with tears as she watched the director, Parker Jenkins.

Jenkins stood with his performance troupe in the stairwell under the children’s hospital cafeteria. They quietly rehearsed “Morning Glow” from the musical, “Pippin.”

“While we sing tomorrow’s song,” they sang. “Never knew we could be so strong.”

The woman, who had just checked her child into the hospital, patiently waited for the group to finish.

After the final note, she silently wept.

“It just made my day hearing you guys sing in this space,” she said between tears. “It just really touched my soul.”

Jenkins gave the woman a hug, and a doctor ushered her away. They were achieving the mission of the Pauper Performance Troupe – to bring musical theater into unreached communities.

But as they moved from the stairwell, Jenkins didn’t know how much longer that mission could last.

He knew funding was running out.

The Pauper Performance Troupe was established at UNC-Chapel Hill in spring 2017 and has always encountered money issues. Without funding from the student government, they rely entirely on donations.

In fall 2018, the troupe raised $300 in donations, their entire budget for the rest of the school year.

Prior to that, the troupe found free karaoke tracks to sing to online. They did not go to nonprofit organizations that required costly background checks before performances. They relied on members paying out of pocket for rides to venues.

Producer, Emily Pirozzolo said the donation funds have given the troupe the ability to travel to more areas in the community, but it does not completely alleviate the financial stress.

They still need a new speaker.

 A Lack of Resources

The 11 troupe members at rehearsal sat red-faced and sweaty in a circle after running the same dance number four times in a row.

“Y’all look dead,” Jenkins said with a slight laugh. “Energy is your best friend. And there was not much of it in us.”

One of the troupe members let out a sigh.

“Can we just sing?” she asked.

“She’s tired,” someone defended.

Jenkins queued the karaoke track, and they got up to rehearse the number a fifth time.

“We can’t hear the music,” called out troupe member Liz Kunesh.

Frustrated, Jenkins mashed the volume button on his laptop, which was connected to a small, black speaker through a tangle of thick cords.

The troupe continued, unsure of where they were in the song. When they finished, they stood panting and more flushed than before.

“I don’t know if it’s been a long day, or it’s a Monday or whatever,” choreographer, Claire Willmschen said. “But the energy was not there.”

Kunesh knew it was not the troupe but the lack of resources.

According to the university’s annual financial report, the department of dramatic art received $12 million in 2018 to support the program. This was the most funding ever donated to the performing arts program.

This funding primarily went to support both the PlayMakers Repertory Company, a professional theater company on campus and the academic side of the department of dramatic art.

The Pauper Performance Troupe did not receive any of the funding.

Music director, Andrew Knudsen still uses a piano app on his phone to teach the troupe songs, rather than an actual keyboard. Jenkins still books rooms in the Carolina Union since they do not have money for a rehearsal studio.

“I wish we could get a super amazing, fancy speaker,” Jenkins said. “But that takes time. It takes money out of our funding.”

And time is something the Pauper Performance Troupe does not have.

High Hopes Conquer Cold Feet

“I’ve improved. I’ve gotten better,” said troupe member Kenan Poole in rehearsal, as he worked on the mashed potato, a dance move where he rapidly flips his feet out and back in.

“Kenan, you have it,” said Willmschen.

Poole was trying to focus on what weight was on which foot. He was trying to slow it down. He was trying to remember what came next.

They were preparing for the next day. Traveling to Jordan Lake School of the Arts to perform for students with special needs was daunting, especially with only one night of rehearsal.

Poole was nervous. They all were.

Especially with what happened last time they performed there.

Troupe member Kunesh walked up to Jenkins before they ran the number, tugging at the bottom of her shirt.

“I don’t know this yet,” she said.

“You got to learn it before you play it,” Jenkins said to her.

She ran off to a corner and ripped open her binder of sheet music, quietly running through her solo as a hectic flurry of dance moves as conversations unfolded in the center of the room.

They had high hopes it would not be like last time.

Struggling and Overcoming Together

Everyone was packed in one classroom like a sea of awestruck faces leaning off of their chairs.

The students in the audience came from diverse backgrounds – some had Down syndrome, were on the autism spectrum or were sensitive to loud sounds.
But they all loved musical theater.

At the last minute, one of the male tenors from the performance troupe did not show up. Jenkins, having not rehearsed the number, decided to take his place.

The first notes of “Fools Fall in Love” from “All Shook Up” floated through the room, and some of the audience members stood up to dance.

Just as the troupe members’ nerves were beginning to melt away, the karaoke track screeched to a halt.

It was the speaker.

They had to stop the performance.

The kids in the audiences audibly complained as Jenkins examined the speaker. Poole began to sing the number without music.

“Struggling together makes it a little bit easier,” he said.

Without a source for sound, the troupe had to come up with theater games to play with the kids instead. They still felt like they were bringing theater into an unreached community, but were disappointed that they could no longer perform.

Feeling defeated, the troupe headed back to their cars and left the school.

Jenkins cursed that broken speaker.

A Future of Hope and Uncertainty

“Okay, last time we run this one,” said Maria Cade, the assistant director.

“I know that’s a lie,” Kunesh said. “We’ll do it more than one more time.”

Jenkins settled back in his chair and watched the troupe rehearse the final number of the evening.

He was upset thinking about the small speaker. He was nervous about the next day’s performance.

But he felt inexplicable joy watching his troupe fight through the challenges of bringing musical theater to the community.

“It really speaks to the power of music,” he said.

The troupe finished the number. With weary smiles and sweat pouring down their temples, they collected their bags to go home.

Jenkins knows they are achieving their mission of bringing musical theater into unreached communities.

But the future of the troupe is still marked with uncertainty – with every performance, their funds diminish.

All he can do is hope their speaker holds out a little bit longer.

Edited by Diane Adame 

‘We lost the interesting stuff’: Maintaining Franklin Street’s character

By James Tatter

On the most historic street in Chapel Hill, the premier restaurant owners had a warning for the newcomers.

“If I don’t tell you anything else in your whole life, it is ‘Do not get into the restaurant business,’” said Greg Overbeck, one of the operators of prominent local eateries like 411 West and Lula’s.

When Carolina Coffee Shop on Franklin Street went up for sale in 2017, a group of former UNC-Chapel Hill students felt impassioned to revitalize the old haunt and sought advice.

There was a couple of athletes, Heather O’Reilly, an Olympic gold medalist soccer player, and David Werry, a Morehead-Cain scholar and UNC men’s lacrosse player. There were the Schossows — Clay, one of “America’s Best Young Entrepreneurs,” according to BusinessWeek, and his wife Sarada, a primary care provider. And there was Jeff Hortman, a screenwriter and a content advisor for Universal Media in Los Angeles.

The restaurant novices were bound together by the idea of returning the nearly century-old campus institution to its old glory. The eclectic group sat outside of Squid’s, a seafood restaurant owned by Overbeck and his partners in the Chapel Hill Restaurant Group.

They knew the risks that came with purchasing a restaurant on this sliver of road: Rent soars, parking is scant and the market is oversaturated.

Franklin Street — the landmark that underlines the small-town feel of the nationally acclaimed university — is starting to lose touch with its community, and losing the old Carolina Coffee Shop would hurt.

Overbeck told them what they already knew.

“We tried to talk them out of it,” Overbeck said. “Do. Not. Do. That.”

But the advice was ignored.  Though, he couldn’t blame them, because he was once enticed by the same stretch of street.

The History

The original builders found sawdust in 1813 when they dug up the lot for the building that now houses Carolina Coffee Shop.

The building, one of the first retail buildings on the street, was constructed on the site of an old mill. It would still be another 100 years before the iconic part-bar, part-diner coffee shop would be conceived.

UNC was just forming within a swath of forest, and the mill supplied timber to the growing construction project next door that was the first public university in the United States.

Carolina Coffee Shop opened in 1922 as a soda fountain.

Now the oldest continuously operating restaurant in North Carolina, the shop can trace its historic roots, from the dirt road in the woods to Chapel Hill’s most prominent street.

Overbeck remembers visiting Chapel Hill for the first time as a member of his high school choir from Charlotte in 1969. The 100 block of Franklin Street had no traffic lights and only three crosswalks. Cars had to stop if anybody wanted to cross that main stretch.

“Chapel Hill at that time was very bohemian, there was a real counter-culture, almost hippy-ish,” Overbeck said.

Retail outlets including record stores, clothing shops and bookstores dotted the road. There weren’t many restaurants, but when Overbeck arrived as a UNC student in 1972, he recalled it being an interesting place to go to school.

“We had the mojo,” Overbeck said.

The Problem

Sitting in a booth at Carolina Brewery, about four blocks west of the Carolina Coffee Shop, Anne Archer recalls how West Franklin Street was shunned during her childhood in Chapel Hill.

“No one came up here,” Archer said.

During her childhood, the university was just beginning to grow into the international research institution that it is today. Basketball was big, the community was small and Chapel Hill was the peaceful village that hosted the school.

“The university today is a monster compared to what it was,” Archer said.

Crooks Corner, a notable southern cuisine restaurant, opened on the west side of Franklin in 1978. It started a rush of restaurants that populated the blocks between Crook’s Corner in the west and Carolina Coffee Shop in the east.

Mickey Ewell operated Spanky’s Restaurant at the busiest intersection in between. He employed Overbeck and Pete Dorrance, brother of the famed North Carolina soccer coach, Anson Dorrance IV. The two lived together and were joined by Kenny Carlson when he moved down from Connecticut.

After years of grunt work at Spanky’s, Overbeck, Dorrance and Carlson decided to go out on their own. With the blessing of Ewell, the boys started Squid’s.

The group eventually came back together and started the Chapel Hill Restaurant Group. They now own eateries across the Triangle area, including Lula’s (formerly Spanky’s) and 411 West on Franklin Street.

In the meantime, the street had evolved from a retail hub to a restaurant hotspot. A few prominent groups stood out and helped usher other owners onto the block.

But it quickly became too crowded. Choked of parking and swelled with rivals, businesses began to fold. Overbeck remembers lecturing his wife for shopping online for clothes.

“Honey, you’re not supporting local business,” Overbeck said.

But he thought about the new Franklin Street, abound with corporate outlets and chain restaurants.

“We lost the interesting stuff,” Overbeck said. “It’s almost ‘anything goes.’”

Archer has heard from her childhood acquaintances about what they think of these changes.

“Friends that don’t live here anymore, they just squawk about how it has changed,” she said.

The Future

Today, Overbeck is pessimistic about the future of Franklin Street.

“If we drove down Franklin Street right now, I’ll bet I could point out ten restaurants that won’t be there in the next year,” he said.

But still, amidst the constant closing of local establishments, a few survive.

Sutton’s, that’s the heart,” Archer said, listing off the spots she remembers from her childhood. “That’s been around since forever. Four Corners… Probably Sutton’s is the only place that’s left over from that bygone era, and Carolina Coffee Shop.”

The fortunate few places that persist on Franklin Street have a character that echoes through the generations of UNC students and Chapel Hill locals that have frequented them. The drugstore counter at Sutton’s is one example.

“With Suttons, there used to be a few ladies who worked behind the counter and they were always there,” Archer reminisced. “The camaraderie of people sitting around the counter, that’s one of those threads that keeps that place alive, keeps the personal feel to it.”

The businesses that persevere are the ones that become a destination for students and locals, as much as a place to eat.

When Hortman came back to Chapel Hill from Los Angeles, he remembers being attracted to Carolina Coffee Shop because of his memories of it as a gathering place and a campus lounge of sorts.

He had to save it.

And that is what keeps Franklin Street alive with the spirit of two-and-a-quarter centuries worth of students.

Some restaurants come and go. But the rest of the places that can cultivate the culture of Chapel Hill beat the chains, living to tell the tale of a street that has defined the town and the campus since it was nothing but a sawmill and a stretch of trees.

Edited by: Diane Adame