Rethinking disposable straws – for the sake of the oceans

Erik De Castro/Reuters
Policemen collect trash in the waters off the beach at the holiday island of Boracay in the Philippines. Nearly 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the oceans from land every year.
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You may not be getting a straw with that drink much longer. Or at least, not a plastic one. Straws are the latest single-use plastic item getting targeted by an increasing number of bans and campaigns as activists work to raise awareness of the massive challenge presented by plastic pollution. It was the theme of this week’s United Nations’ World Environment Day, and India became the latest country to announce plans to phase out all single-use plastic in an effort to make a dent in the 8 million metric tons of plastic that enter Earth’s oceans each year. While some people are pushing back on straw bans, noting that plastic straws are a necessity for certain individuals, advocates say that the bans are one more step in raising awareness about our unsustainable reliance on single-use plastic and the harm that it’s causing sea life, in particular. “Plastic straws [can be] the gateway, the beginning to raise awareness or open your eyes about single-use plastic,” says Dianna Cohen, chief executive officer of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. “We’re really hoping that we create a system shift.”

Why We Wrote This

When it comes to pollution, it can be difficult to imagine how any one individual's efforts can make a difference. But in the case of disposable plastics, activists insist that every choice carries weight.

Are straws the new plastic bags?

They’re the latest single-use plastic item getting increased attention as an unnecessary (for most people) tool that too often ends up clogging waterways, seas, and beaches.

A video that went viral in 2015 of a sea turtle getting a bloody straw removed from its nostril helped spur some of the growing momentum to ban or limit plastic straws in many cities, states, countries, and businesses.

Why We Wrote This

When it comes to pollution, it can be difficult to imagine how any one individual's efforts can make a difference. But in the case of disposable plastics, activists insist that every choice carries weight.

But while straws are the current target of some legislative action, scientists and environmental activists caution that – with 8 million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean from land every year, the equivalent of one dump truck of plastic entering the ocean each minute – any real solution is going to take a combination of efforts.

“We’re really hoping that we create a system shift,” says Dianna Cohen, chief executive officer of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a global alliance of individuals, organizations, and businesses. Ms. Cohen, like others, says a solution will require a combination of changing consumer behavior, source reduction, producers that change the way they package or take responsibility for that packaging, and improved waste management systems.

“Plastic is, just like any other material, potentially a valuable material,” she says. “But when we began designing and making things made out of plastic with a specific focus for them to be single-use, or ‘disposable,’ or ‘convenient’ – this is when we really made a wrong turn.”

Plastic pollution, particularly its effect on the oceans and sea life, has been under the spotlight lately. It was the theme of the United Nations’ World Environment Day this week. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the occasion to announce a plan to ban all single-use plastics by 2022, and that the country would join the UN’s Clean Seas campaign, which works to tackle pollution and raise awareness of the issue.

That announcement came on the heels of a European Union proposal to phase out most single-use plastics by 2030. Britain, Taiwan, Belize, Costa Rica, Chile, and several African countries have also enacted various bans. In Kenya, which has enacted the harshest ban on plastic bags, offenders can even face jail time.

In the United States, action has been more city by city – with the exception of California, which rid itself of most plastic bags two years ago, and just introduced a bill that would ban plastic straws, except when requested. Seattle will soon go strawless, and New York is considering doing so. Last week, the food service company Bon Appétit announced it would phase out straws in all of its cafes, joining other companies with similar plans, including Alaska Airlines.

A thoughtful approach

To some, the current focus on straws can seem arbitrary, and it has generated a backlash from the disabled community, for whom straws can be a necessity in order to drink. Replacements – like bamboo, metal, or glass straws – aren’t always feasible, comfortable, or safe for all people.

Many environmental advocates agree that it’s important to recognize the gray area for items like straws. They say it shouldn’t be too hard to carve out exceptions, but insist that the rate at which straws are currently ending up on beaches and in the ocean demands action.

During the International Coastal Cleanup, a single day in September when communities around the world head out to clean up beaches, volunteers have collected 3 million discarded straws over the past five years, says Nicholas Mallos, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program.

Bans and legislative action can start to have an impact on the actual amount of trash that gets into waterways, he says. “But just as importantly, the legislation signals to consumers and companies that this is something people care about, and that change is needed.”

Jenna Jambeck, the lead researcher of the landmark 2015 report that first quantified the amount of plastic trash entering the ocean, says that she’s always wary of talking about the need for bans in a blanket way because the local context can vary so much: A disabled person might need a plastic straw. Someone in a region without potable water might need bottled water. There are high-poverty countries where citizens collect water using plastic bags.

“There are so many intersectional issues with poverty and homelessness,” says Dr. Jambeck, an associate professor at the University of Georgia in Athens and a National Geographic Explorer. “I don’t think they should prevent us from taking these actions, but we should be thoughtful with how we approach these situations.”

Like Mr. Mallos, Jambeck emphasizes the importance such campaigns can have on people’s awareness of the issue. Alaska Airlines’ straws probably weren’t a big source of litter, she says, but not getting a straw on an airplane might make some people think differently.

Already, most plastic pollution advocates say they’re seeing a sea change in both awareness and behavior.

“I think we’ve passed a tipping point and are cresting a wave right now of awareness,” says Cohen, of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Social media and the internet have been incredibly helpful tools in demonstrating the scope of the problem, she adds. In addition to the sea turtle video, there was the photo of the sea horse gripping a pink Q-Tip, the recent footage of 80 plastic bags pulled from the stomach of a pilot whale who died in Thailand, and the news last year about the highest density of trash recorded in the world on a remote, uninhabited Pacific island.

“Everyone is affected when they see those pictures of animals caught in plastic,” says Lisa Emelia Svensson, director for Ocean at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). “It gives us a tool to communicate.”

Peter Andrews/Reuters/File
A giant green turtle rests on a coral reef at a diving site near the island of Sipadan in Celebes Sea east of Borneo. A video that went viral in 2015 of a sea turtle getting a bloody straw removed from its nostril helped spur some of the growing momentum to ban or limit plastic straws in many cities, states, countries, and businesses.

The way forward

report released Tuesday by the UNEP documents the significant legislative action being taken globally, but also injects a note of caution about implementation pitfalls. Of the 60 laws the UN documented, about 30 percent are making a difference, says Ms. Svensson. In many cases, enforcement or institutional capacity to carry out the bans is lacking.

The report delves into case studies like Rwanda’s ban on plastic bags, which led to a 2008 nomination as cleanest city in Africa but also a black market.

The report suggests a 10-step roadmap for policymakers, emphasizing things like incentives to industry, engaging stakeholders, and raising awareness as bans or levies are slowly phased in.

Meanwhile, activists on plastic pollution emphasize that this is an area where individual action matters, and can be critical to slowly shifting collective behavior.

Everywhere she goes, says Cohen, she now carries a few key items that fit in her purse: a fold-up reusable bag, a double-walled steel cup, bamboo utensils, a stainless steel straw. At restaurants, she tells waiters when she orders not to bring a straw – which can open up a thoughtful conversation. Her coalition recently contributed to an updated list of alternatives people can look for.

“I want to be as positive as possible and empower every single person I meet,” says Cohen, who – despite the scope of the problem – remains optimistic. “The amount of change and shift in language and perception and awareness we see growing right now is tremendous. I could not have imagined this 10 years ago.”

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