Do plastic straws suck or are they an important tool for inclusion?
Next Generation Science Standards:
- HS-LS2-7. Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity.
Plastic straws are fast becoming one of the most hated inanimate objects in popular culture. Indeed, sad images of struggling sea life and scary statistics about straw pollution are causing many to yell “That’s the last straw!” This article explores the history of the humble plastic straw, and its continued impacts on society and the environment today.
There are a variety of reasons why there has been such a public outcry against plastic straws. First, they are nearly impossible to recycle because of their impractical size and shape. Most recyclers do not accept them, and they end up in the garbage. Plastic straws are also easily blown out of garbage cans into streets, eventually making their way to the waterways. Generally, plastic contains many harmful chemicals that can affect the health of both animals and humans. Even without being digested, plastic debris can hurt or kill seabirds, marine mammals, and fish, by entangling them or causing them to starve or suffocate. Lastly, plastic production contributes to climate change, as 6% of global oil consumption goes towards creating plastics. Even the degradation of plastic emits greenhouse gases.
But while around 8 million metric tons of plastic trash end up in our oceans every year, only 4-7% of pollution are plastic straws, compared to plastic bottle caps (17%), food wrappers and containers (31%), and plastic bags (11.2%). That still means that around 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world’s beaches, and they’re one of the top ten items collected along the planet’s coastlines. It makes sense why straws rank so high for volunteer trash collectors — straws are way easier to identify than tiny bits of plastic, whose original source is usually unknown.
Recently, there have been laws limiting or completely banning plastic straws all across the country and even around the world. But why have these bans been so widely popular and do they really work? Are they helping solve the marine debris issue or creating other problems?
Straws: their rise and decline
Plastic straws weren’t always so prevalent. Up until the mid-20th century, people drank liquids out of straws made from metals, stalks of grain, and paper. It wasn’t until World War II when plastic production really skyrocketed, as factories needed to make a lot of cheap and durable plastic for the war efforts. When the war ended, American manufacturers turned their attention to a growing market for affordable consumer goods. Plastic production steadily increased, and by the 1960s, plastic straws were cheaper and more durable than paper. By 2015, the world was producing 322 million tons of plastic each year, enough to fill all of the skyscrapers in New York City. People generally knew plastic wasn’t that great for the health of our planet or our own bodies, but until very recently, it was just another unsolvable, large problem, like climate change or global hunger.
The outrage against straws specifically may have begun in 2011, when a 9-year old boy, Milo Cress, launched a “Be Straw Free” campaign to educate people about plastic waste. After talking with straw manufacturers and doing some research, he estimated that Americans use 500 million drinking straws each day. This large number, although its accuracy is debated, caught people’s attention. There was also a viral video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose that caused heartbreak across the world. Environmental organizations used these numbers and images to kick-start their campaigns to try to ban plastic straws.
Surfrider Foundation declared 2018 “the year we say goodbye to straws”, and many of its regional chapters started their own straw ban initiatives. In 2017, led by actor Adrian Grenier, the Lonely Whale Foundation started the “For a Strawless Ocean” campaign, which involved many collaborators and celebrities pledging to #StopSucking. This hashtag went viral, reaching millions of people around the world.
Cities and even entire countries started implementing policies and laws to either severely limit or outright ban plastic straws. Seattle became the first US city to completely ban them in July 2018, and Vancouver was the 1st major Canadian city to do so. As of January 2019, full-service restaurants in California cannot automatically give customers plastic straws, and many California cities already have their own ordinances. Starting in July 2019, Portland will fine restaurants if they automatically give customers plastic cutlery or straws. Various cities around Florida are also taking action. Delray Beach’s restaurants and bars will only serve reusable and biodegradable straws by 2020; Hallandale Beach, Deerfield Beach, and Ft. Lauderdale have already started their bans; and Miami Beach has banned straws from their beaches.
The European Union and the UK both plan to eventually ban all single-use plastics; Taiwan is working to eliminate all single-use straws by 2025. Foodservice companies like Bon Appétit and Aramark, plus many more big corporations, already have or will greatly reduce or eliminate their plastic straw use as well.
The Good and the Bad
Lonely Planet views these bans as an a-political way to inform millions of people about the harm plastics can cause. They and other organizations believe plastic straws can be a “gateway plastic”, leading people to think about the harms of other single-use plastics and the marine debris issue as a whole. There is mixed evidence if actions like straw bans actually lead to people limiting other plastic use. It could potentially push people to adopt other pro-environmental behaviors, or it could give them false assurances that these bans are good enough. It’s too early to tell if the straw bans will actually have a tangible impact, but there are some indications it could work– e.g, beach cleanups in California are reporting less plastic bags since the state’s 2014 plastic bag ban.
Meanwhile, there have been some criticism and setbacks. As more and more jurisdictions pass measures, manufacturers are having trouble meeting the demand. And non-plastic alternatives are still more expensive for businesses. Paper straws cost $95 for 4,800, while plastic costs $50 for 5,000, but this may change as the shift continues.
Disability rights advocates also claim that straw bans hurt those who have a difficult time drinking liquids. Before plastic straws, liquids were much harder to drink for people with limited mobility, making it harder for them to swallow and easier to develop pneumonia and other life-threatening illnesses. Their replacements, paper or compostable straws, can break easily apart in liquids and melt in hot drinks. Inflexible metal or silicone straws are very hard, so they be can dangerous for people with difficulty controlling their bite. In addition, reusable straws need to be washed, which not all people with disabilities can do easily. Some straw ban proponents argue that people should simply remember to bring their own, but a disability rights activist claims that is neither “just, equitable, nor hospitable”. Even in places where plastic straws are available upon request, there is still concern that service providers may reject you, or it may be embarrassing to ask.
The last straw?
If you are able to switch, there are some great alternatives to plastic straws. Keep in mind that if you are using a “compostable straw”, it still won’t likely break down properly unless your city has an industrial composting system. Find out if yours does, and if not, paper replacements may be the better option.
If you’re involved in advocacy, remember to be inclusive of those who do need plastic straws. Talk to businesses to make sure they have alternatives and suggest good ways to display them, such as making both biodegradable and plastic options easily accessible and clearly labeled.
Overall, plastic straws are a particularly visible and tangible example of our impact on the planet. Perhaps our conversations will help us realize how interconnected plastic pollution is to larger issues, like climate change and over-consumption. We can also use this movement to explore other problems facing the ocean, such as overfishing and ocean acidification, as well as various larger solutions. Discussions can focus on how we should consume less, how we produce plastics, and how to improve recycling and waste infrastructure as a whole. These solutions go far beyond simply saying no to the straw.