KENNEBUNK — The first step toward making a lasting change is to raise public awareness of the issue and that’s the idea at the heart of an initiative in the Kennebunks to end the use of plastic straws in area restaurants and coffee shops.

Since last fall, representatives of The Planeteers of Southern Maine, a grass roots environmental action alliance, have visited 100 restaurants and coffee houses in Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Arundel and Wells and asked owners and managers to agree to forgo plastic straws. Friday is National “Skip the Straw” Day and the project coincides with that effort to bring attention to the environmental impact of single-use plastic items and curb litter and plastic ocean pollution.

Nationally an estimated 500 million plastic straws are used in the United States every day and are not biodegradable, often fragmenting into toxic micro slivers harmful to fish and marine species. People forget they are plastic and do not recycle them, meaning they are disposed of as garbage and end up contaminating rivers and oceans.

“Who really needs a straw anyway,” said Andrea Rothkimmich, one of the founding members of The Planeteers group. “If they need a straw, chances are they probably have one.”

Rothkimmich said The Planeteers “Skip the Straw” campaign is doing things differently in trying to eradicate the use of plastic straws.

“Instead of going to town governments to seek a ban on them, we’re doing exactly the opposite,” she said. “We’re going to the restaurants and coffee shops themselves and consider them partners in this. We started visiting them in October and engage them in conversation and exploring alternatives.”

She said they are asking establishments to commit to finding alternatives to plastic straws by Earth Day on April 22.

“Those we’ve visited are aware of the problems with plastics,” Rothkimmich said. “People do care about the planet and doing the right thing. So far 51 restaurants have pledged to the project.”

Giving establishments until Earth Day to give up plastic straws allows the businesses time to use up the inventory they’ve already purchased and to find suitable alternatives and solutions to the problem, Rothkimmich said.

Among that group is the Moon Rose Cafe on Spring Street in Kennebunkport, which has agreed to halt ordering plastic straws permanently.

“Come April we will no longer be using plastic straws,” said Tom Murphy, Moon Rose Cafe owner. “We want our business to be good for the environment.”

Murphy said he would make the switch to paper straws sooner, but his supplier cannot get them before April.

“We’re told there’s a tremendous demand for paper straws right now,” he said. “We also sell a permanent reusable steel straw for $1.50.”

And for those businesses that haven’t currently agreed to make the switch, Rothkimmich said that The Planeteers have interested them in doing so eventually.

“Some have had difficulty relying on the availability of the old standard, paper, since so many restaurants, and apparently manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, are not able to keep up with the growing demand,” she said. “Still others, who have moved to using compostables are learning, only after the fact, that nothing will compost if it’s not added to a compost bin, and in this case, probably a commercial variety that is far hotter than our backyard variety.”

She said The Planeteers chose straws as its current focus, because they are the easiest to dispense with.

“The ‘Why’ is extraordinarily clear. We feel compelled by the images that captivated us online of the sea turtle plagued by a straw up its nose and the piles of plastic on beaches around the world,” Rothkimmich said. “The Planeteers, along with many of you, regularly clean our local shorelines of debris knowing that the likelihood of even one straw may maim wild life. And for every one we found, there are countless others.”

When The Planeteers visited the Mekhong Thai restaurant in Kennebunk, the owner told them it had simply never occurred to him to not serve the straw, but that he’d change the next order, and he did.

Local coffee houses are supporting the project too. Kennebunk’s Morning in Paris and Kennebunkport’s Dock Square Coffee House have switched to paper straws. Dock Square Coffee House also offers patrons steel straws for purchase. Boulangerie – A Proper Bakery in Kennebunk is now using compostable ware for items sold and The Blue Coffeehouse and Wine Bar has pledged to find an alternative to plastic straws by April.

As more establishments request paper straws, their cost will drop, Rothkimmich predicts.

“We need to push for bulk pricing of alternatives to plastics and we need to establish easy means of composting,” she said.