There’s a famous, one-word line in the 1967 movie The Graduate, when a well-meaning man advises a young college student, played by actor Dustin Hoffman, to think about the direction of his future. “Plastics,” the man says.
It seems as though that future is here. Today, our culture is subsumed by the ubiquity of plastics. Luckily, however, there are some places that are doing something about that by tackling what at first glance seems like a needle in the heaps-of-plastic haystack: straws.
Cities across the globe, including Seattle, Washington, and Glasgow, Scotland, are moving to rid themselves of plastic straws and replacing them with biodegradable or reusable alternatives. On an even wider scale, the United Kingdom has signaled plans to prohibit plastic straws, and the European Union wants single-use plastic straws banned from all member states by 2030.
But with our oceans being inundated with much larger pieces of plastic, is cutting down on straw use really going to help?
The answer to that question may surprise you.
Scottish schoolchildren started the straw strike
Every day, Americans throw away 500 million plastic straws, which is said to be enough to circle the Earth twice. In a lifetime, the average American will use more than 35,000 of them.
Other straw statistics are just as daunting: in the United Kingdom, 8.5 billion, single-use plastic straws are thrown away annually. According to Litterati, an app that identifies and maps trash, plastic straws are the sixth most common type of litter worldwide. Ocean Conservancy says that plastic straws are among the top 10 marine debris items, and some scientists estimate that there will be more plastic than fish (by weight) in our oceans by the year 2050.
More than one million seabirds are killed every year through entanglement and ingestion of plastics. A survey, published in Scientific Reports in 2015, revealed that a quarter of market fish in California and Indonesia contains plastics, which means that people are consuming dangerous levels of them.
The Scottish ban on plastic straws got its start by schoolchildren in the West Highlands. As of December 2017, all of the 14 bars, cafes and restaurants in Ullapool no longer offer plastic straws to patrons. The change came about after a campaign by pupils from the local primary school and Glasgow’s Sunnyside Primary, who used the Twitter hashtag #NaeStrawAtAw. Ferry operators then began following suit, no longer providing plastic straws on any of their crossings.
In early February 2018, the Scottish Parliament in Glasgow banned plastic straws in council buildings. Until the end of 2017, about 4,000 plastic straws a year were being used in those locations, but now only paper straws will be provided on request. In January 2018, British Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste within 25 years as part of the government’s environmental strategy, with calls for supermarkets to introduce “packaging-free” aisles. Even Queen Elizabeth II is banning plastic straws from her royal residences of Buckingham Palace in London and the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Scotland. The European Commission has announced that all plastic packaging across Europe will be recyclable or reusable by the end of the next decade.
Straws suck and other successful strategies
In view of the problem that much bigger pieces of plastic—such as bags and bottles—cause to the environment, why all the hubbub about plastic straws?
Small and lightweight, straws often never make it into recycling bins. Just walk along almost any beach for proof. And although straws amount to only a tiny fraction of ocean plastic, their size makes them one of the most insidious polluters because of the damage they cause to marine animals, fish and seabirds.
There’s yet another problem. In the United States, there are no systems in place to effectively recycle most straws. The machines we have aren’t capable of capturing something as small as a straw, and they literally fall through the cracks. In addition, most of the plastic that’s collected for recycling is shipped overseas to be sorted and manufactured into other products, so there’s little incentive to build better equipment here.
Currently, there are several campaigns aimed at getting rid of the straws that are polluting our planet, including #StopSucking and Strawless in Seattle, an effort that helped the city save 2.3 million plastic straws in three months by assisting businesses and restaurants in switching to a paper straw that biodegrades.
Plastic straws may be small, but they just might provide the tiny opening we need to mitigate—or even solve—the much larger issue of ocean pollution.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,