The Last Straw

Until now I haven’t written much about straws – specifically single-use plastic straws – and the damage and pollution they cause.  I have talked about the problems with single-use plastic, e.g., plastic bottles that are used once and tossed in the trash or recycled.  As we’ve come to learn, many of those plastic bottles that are recycled aren’t actually recycled because of various reasons.  Recycling centers may lack sufficient capacity.  Some recyclables are shipped abroad where they might be dumped instead of recycled.  And many plastic items are made of composite materials making recycling too complex to be efficient.  Bottom line, it’s estimated that only 9% of plastics are actually recycled. And far too many of these plastics end up in our oceans and in the fish that live there. These fish that either die because the plastic affects their ability to breath – or we consume them – including the plastic they ingest. And plastic lasts a long time.

So let’s talk a bit about plastic straws.  Plastic straws are the dominant form of straws in the marketplace today.  Most restaurants provide them automatically. They are cheaper than other straws, for example paper (which costs a penny more) – but paper is compostable.  Metal or glass straws are reusable but much more expensive and can be dangerous.  Last year National Geographic published an article that stated that in the U.S. alone, 500 million straws are used every single day.  That’s almost two straws a person, per day! Another study published that same year estimated 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world’s beaches.  And while these numbers seem mind boggling, it should be noted that plastic straws are a minuscule portion of all plastic that flows into the ocean – actually about 0.025 percent of all plastic in the ocean. 

So what’s the big deal about plastic straws?  Most able-bodied people do not need to use a straw for their beverages– it’s something we can eliminate without drastically changing our behavior.  The exceptions, of course, include those who cannot sit up (e.g., hospital patients) and persons with disabilities.

Recognizing that plastic straws are truly discretionary items for most people, many communities, businesses, and other organizations have banned or eliminated their use as an environmentally good step.  In July 2018, Seattle became the largest U.S. city to ban plastic straws.  Washington D.C. joined Seattle in January 2019.  Starbucks has announced plans to phase out plastic straws by 2020.  McDonald’s, Bon Appétit Management, Alaska Airlines have similarly announced plans to phase out plastic straw use. The Columbus Zoo, among many other zoos, bans straws for the safety of its animals and participates in the national “skip the straw” day in February.

Banning the use of any product can be controversial.  For example, the state of Florida, which has lots of beaches (understatement) has legislation pending which would prohibit plastic straws and plastic “carryout” bags statewide.  This has been a contentious issue for a while in Florida.  The Republican legislature previously passed a bill that would have blocked local governments from banning plastic straws.  Fortunately that bill was vetoed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. 

If you need an actual visual to reinforce the need to eliminate plastic straw and other plastic items, let me suggest you Google “plastic straw in sea turtle” or “sea creatures stuck in plastic” – not pretty pictures.

These videos caused quite a stir and amplified the debate around plastic straws. An August, 2018 survey indicated 67% of U.S. adults support phasing out plastic straws.  And a majority of respondents believed companies were not doing enough to eliminate plastic straws.  So clearly, the word has gotten out that plastic straws are not necessities and could/should be phased out by businesses. 

Ten “Trump Straws” for $15.00

 But not all people feel this way.  Some view straws as a proxy for larger issues around choice and control. They say, “it’s just not right to tell me what to do” and “if I want to have and use a straw, then give it to me… and make that two straws”. In fact, the Republican Campaign to re-elect Donald Trump recently introduced the “Donald Trump Straw”, to capitalize on this sentiment. The campaign projected it would sell $500,000 worth of straws in a week. The founder of the campaign viewed these as an alternative to compostable straws… But really, for most people, no straws are needed. At all. Even a little bit.

Donald Trump Straws remind me of the actions by the “Coal Rollers” who, after President Obama was elected, equipped their large trucks with devices that would emit large plumes of black smoke with the push of a button.  {Note, link to Coal Rollers contains sensitive materials not suitable for all ages.} These efforts were fueled by spite, not unlike a request for two straws (to spite those who choose to avoid them) or a blatant disregard for community. “You want to save the world?” I can imagine a Coal roller say “I’m going to make it harder for you.” I don’t pretend to know the motivations of those who buy political straws or intentionally pollute. I think our world is pretty great, and I’d like to see it stick around for my granddaughters. I’d like to eat seafood that isn’t filled with micro-plastics. And I’d like those who need them to have access to straws. But I’d also like us all to be a bit more intentional about what we really need.

So what’s my takeaway from all this? When at a restaurant, I plan to say “Hold the straw” whether I’m drinking water or a cocktail (shaken, not stirred with a straw, of course). If enough straws remain unused, perhaps the restaurant won’t order more. And if local initiatives come up to ban plastic straws (or other single-use plastic items like take-out carriers) I plan to support them. 

These seem like pretty easy steps that all of us can take and make a small dent in the number of plastic straws that end up on the beach or in the belly of some sea creature.  If you agree, please share your thoughts with others.  Collectively we can make a difference and look forward to recalling “the last straw.”

2 thoughts on “The Last Straw

  1. You mean the guy who even the racists think is a racist? I guess you can always count on Ron to make the wrong decisions, no matter the issue.

    This was a great post, and I think it’s a good example of how individuals won’t always make the right choices on their own (whether based on apathy or ignorance). We need governments and companies to nudge consumers in the right direction. Single-stream recycling? Plus, if you’re a man, you probably shouldn’t be using a straw anyway.

    Like

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