#StopSucking: Plastic Straw Bans Gain Momentum

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#StopSucking: Plastic Straw Bans Gain Momentum

Anna Sander ’20

     The latest push in environmental policy hopes to limit one of the most prevalent objects in American daily life: plastic straws. Although each individual straw seems harmless, collectively, straws decimate marine life.

     In 2015, a video of a plastic straw being wrenched out of a sea turtle’s nostril went viral and sparked global outrage. The gruesome eight-minute video depicts the turtle with blood streaming down its face, unable to breathe, smell, or eat. As horrifying as the video is, this incident is not unique within the oceanic ecosystems ravished by human pollution.

     “An estimated 71% of seabirds and 30% of turtles have been found with plastics in their stomachs. When they ingest plastic, marine life has a 50% mortality rate,” according to the campaign For a Strawless Ocean. The Center for Biological Diversity emphasizes that ingested plastic can cause wildlife to sustain digestive injuries, suffocate, or be tricked into believing that they have eaten enough when, in fact, they are starving.

     However, the problem is worsening with time. More plastic has been produced globally in the last ten years than ever before (Axios), and total plastic production is projected to increase by 40% in the next ten years (Center for Biological Diversity). The EPA reports that plastic’s incredible durability has caused all of the plastic that has ever been produced to still exist as waste.

     “Not one square mile of surface ocean anywhere on earth is free of plastic pollution,” reports the Center for Biological Diversity, and at least nine million tons of this plastic is released into the ocean annually (Science X).

     These statistics are ugly. Activists are trying to bring about large-scale changes by slowly decreasing the prevalence of a small, but important, contributor: single-use plastic straws.

     Over 500 million straws are used every day in America, equating to 127 filled school buses (Ecocycle). Even if these straws are properly recycled, their small size and weight often prevent them from making it through the sorting process, and they become intermixed with garbage (For a Strawless Ocean). In total, between 437 million and 8.3 billion straws have washed up on shores across the world, and they account for almost two thousand tons of plastic waste dumped into oceans each year (Science X).

     People across the world have become more aware of the dangers of plastic pollution and have started to transform their views into action. Many grassroots organizations, companies, and even some governments have been actively leading the movement against straws. The organizers of Earth Day proclaimed 2018’s theme to be “End Plastic Pollution,” while many people have joined campaigns such as Be Straw Free, The Last Plastic Straw, For a Strawless Ocean, StrawFree.org, and StrawWars.org.

     Several companies have instituted new policies in response to the movement’s momentum. Starbucks, the largest global food and beverage retailer, has announced it will completely replace its iconic green straws with a sippy cup-like top by 2020. Other companies that are initiating similar policies include Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott UK, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, SeaWorld Entertainment, and Royal Caribbean (Fortune).

     Furthermore, governments across the United States and the world have vowed to enforce a plastic-straw ban. The states of Hawaii and California plan to implement bans, in addition to New York City, NY; Seattle, WA; and Miami Beach and Fort Myers, FL (Fast Company).

     Critics argue that straw bans will disproportionately affect those with disabilities, many of whom cannot consume liquids without straws. Although reusable stainless steel or compostable straws seem to be good alternatives, they pose their own problems: stainless steel straws are often too inflexible, and compostable straws can disintegrate before a person who takes a longer time to drink has finished. Furthermore, these types of straws are not widely available yet and can easily be forgotten at home.

     Even more people emphasize that plastic straws are not nearly the largest contributor to plastic pollution and account for only two thousand tons of the nine million total tons of plastic in the ocean (Science X).  They argue that bans in the United States will likely have an almost negligible effect on global pollution:

     “Most of the plastic waste in the oceans comes from countries that don’t have good systems for putting trash in landfills. Around 90% of the plastic in the oceans comes from just ten rivers: eight are in Asia and two are in Africa,” wrote Camille Harmer and William F. Shughart II for Fortune. Far more pressing is the impact of commercial fishing nets, which make up 46% of the mass of the plastic in one of the largest ocean garbage accumulations, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Mashable).

     While activists understand that the environmental effects of plastic straw bans may be small, they hope that the moral effects are not. One major goal is to educate the world on how small actions can have far-reaching and unintended environmental consequences. They hope this issue will be a starting point from which everyone can work together to clean up the environment, piece by piece.