On a recent trip to the Outer Banks, something was missing in nearly every restaurant I had a meal in. It wasn’t until three days in, that I finally asked the server at Avenue Grille in Manteo. “Hey, where are the straws?”
Several years ago, many Outer Banks cafes, restaurants, bars, and shops stopped handing out straws with drinks she said. A program called “Skip the Straw” was quickly adopted. And minimizing single use plastics spread to other sectors. The pristine beaches and litter-free public spaces suddenly made sense. Paper bags stand at the ready in the Food Lion grocery store and Sal’s New York Pizza uses biodegradable takeout containers. Trio Outer Banks and Kill Devil Grill held the straws. These are just a few of the many ocean-friendly local establishments that safeguard treasured natural resources in the Outer Banks.
Up and down the coast, the goal is to keep litter of every kind, particularly plastics, off the beach, out of the water, and away from marine life. It’s a grassroots effort and one the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.) and the North Carolina Aquarium of Roanoke Island strongly support. A visit to the aquarium after lunch served as an immediate reminder. Geared toward visitors of all ages, an educational poster in the aquarium summed up the impact of plastics. The poster said, “Scientists recently studied the poop of 25 green sea turtles and found that all 25 had eaten plastic!” The sea turtle hospital sees firsthand the effects of ingested plastics. Read more about the "5 Types of Sea Turtles" that visit the OBX.


NEST Sea Turtle
Photo by Heather Raulerson


While visiting, here are seven ways you can help the Outer Banks stay clean, beautiful, and safe for all residents:

1. Skip the Straw

The “Be Straw Free” campaign began in Vermont in 2011. At that time, 9-year-old Milo Cress estimated Americans used about 500 million straws per day. To put that number in perspective, he figured 500 million straws would fill 127 school buses.

Cress’s “Be Straw Free” campaign encouraged restaurant servers to offer straws with drinks rather than automatically handing them out. Local businesses jumped on board several years later and the “Skip the Straw” campaign was born.

Behind plastic bags, pieces of plastic straws are the second most common ocean contaminant for sea turtles to ingest. Add the fact that plastic straws are petroleum-based products, and you have two great reasons to skip the straws. You can do your part by saying “no thanks” to the plastic straw, using a paper straw, or bringing a reusable metal or bamboo straw with you when you visit.


sea turtle sign sustainability straw
Photo by Gail Clifford

2. Avoid Single Use Plastics

Single-use plastics include everything from paper coffee cups to Styrofoam takeaway containers. Yep, paper coffee cups are lined with plastic, and we throw 50 billion cups away in the U.S. each year.

Reserve a little space in your suitcase for your reusable water bottle, insulated coffee mug, reusable straw, and bamboo silverware. You can find collapsible water bottles online. And if you’re someone who can’t finish a meal but hate to waste great food, bring along a collapsible silicone food container with a lid. You’ll put it to good use in the Outer Banks where hearty portions of fresh and cooked-to-perfection food is the norm.


3. Use Reusable Bags

Here’s another estimate for you: Americans use about 10 billion plastic bags a year. Worldwide, 160,000 plastic bags are used every second of every day.

A plastic bag that doesn’t make it into a recycle bin or the trash can easily get blown into the water. Of all the garbage that makes it into the ocean, a plastic bag is the most likely to be eaten by a sea turtle. To a hungry sea turtle, a plastic bag looks like a jellyfish dinner.

If you plan to shop during your visit, you can bring a reusable bag from home or buy a reusable bag as a souvenir. Or you can leave your reusable bag in your vacation rental at the end of your stay so the next visitor can do their part to keep the Outer Banks clean.


4. Recycle like a local

If you use single-use plastic food containers, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, or paper bags, dispose of them in recycle bins. If you don’t see a recycle container in your hotel or vacation rental, you’ll find recycling centers in Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, Manteo, and on Hatteras.

What can and cannot be recycled varies across the country and in the Outer Banks, as well. Pizza boxes, waxed cartons, wet paper, plastic bags, and Styrofoam aren’t recycled here. You can check the specifics at the link above.


5. Pack in, pack out

At the end of your day at any one of the Outer Banks beaches, pack out everything you brought, including your trash. If you happen to see litter, pick it up, too, and take it with you. For beaches that allow dogs (check here for more information of dog-friendly beaches), pick up after your pooch.


beach buxton


6. Tread lightly

Take stewardship a few steps further, literally. Walk or ride a bike rather than driving if you’re heading to a nearby destination. Enjoy eco-friendly activities. Consider taking a walking tour in historic Manteo, a coastal horseback ride with Equine Adventures on Hatteras Island, or a sunset sail with Dan and Katherine Bottjen of Sail Outer Banks.

And if you really want to make a difference, access the beach by way of the boardwalks and walk around the dunes rather than over them. Dunes may not appear very fragile, but they’re easily disrupted. Walking on them can destroy sea grass and breakdown the barrier they provide to adjacent buildings and streets.


7. Leave with more than you came with

There are no sad statistics or chores on this one. In fact, it is the Outer Banks’ gift to you: fond memories, full bellies, and a standing invitation to come back soon. We hope you take us up on the offer!


Jennette's Pier