TREASURE ISLAND — A handful of plastic straws has garnered social media fame for Julie Featherston and her 5-year-old son, Harper.
Now she's hoping that fame will propel a wider initiative to protect the environment from plastics.
The Treasure Island family lives across from Sunset Beach, near Caddy's on the Beach, the well-known Gulfside restaurant and bar.
"We go to the beach and kick the soccer ball around and every time we do, we pick up trash around our area," Featherston said.
During a beach visit recently, mother and son collected a handful of plastic straws in 10 minutes but, instead of tossing them in the garbage like they normally do, Featherston decided to take things a step further.
"I was angry," she said. "I thought, 'People should know these are all out here because they don't necessarily see them." '
Her next actions started a social media firestorm.
She presented a waitress at the restaurant with the straws and asked if the business could stop using them.
"They are really bad for the animals and the environment," Featherston said.
The waiter was sympathetic but said it would be unrealistic not to offer straws to diners.
So Featherston took a photo of the straws and posted it on her Facebook page, hoping for at least 100 people to share it. Within 24 hours, she had 5,000 likes as Facebook users posted and reposted the photo and message.
"I had no idea it would get this much attention," she said. People as far away as San Diego and Detroit responded as well as organizations across the country like the Last Straw, a group fighting against plastic polluting beachfronts.
"It was exciting," Featherston said. "I was thrilled. It gave me faith in humanity. I just think people have had enough and really want to do something about this."
The Facebook share total is now nearing 9,000 and Featherston thinks the media attention she has received will push her toward her goal of eventually getting state and maybe even national laws to attack the problem of plastic's harmful impact on the environment.
A Discovery Channel online digital editor interviewed her and she has created another Facebook page No Plastics on Our Beaches to focus attention on the issue.
To dramatize plastic's impact, she added a graphic video showing scientists removing an embedded straw from the nose of a sea turtle.
Caddy's assistant manager Scott Sebastian said the restaurant's owners and employees "desperately care for the beach" and Featherston's actions have been a catalyst to take further steps to keep the beaches clean and safe for wildlife.
"We have stopped automatically offering straws and just let customers ask for them," said Sebastian, who estimates in the last week straw use has dropped by 30 or 40 percent at the restaurant.
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Caddy's rakes the beach every day and hires people to clean up trash outside. It's also researching vendors to find the best biodegradable straws it can buy as a replacement.
"We hope others will get on board as well," Sebastian said. "If we show we can do it with the volume of customers we have, then everybody should be able to do it."
Treasure Island Mayor Robert Minning, after hearing about Featherston's efforts, contacted the Bilmar Hotel on Treasure Island and its management has agreed to switch to paper straws.
The city's Beach Stewardship Committee was expected to discuss the issue at its meeting this week.
"Our oceans can't handle this any more," Featherson said. "I urge people to educate themselves and keep talking about it. We have the opportunity to make a difference."