Editor’s note: In recent months, we have seen – and written about – numerous initiatives around the world addressing the problem of waste from single-use plastics, including straws. Here, guest author Robert Kravitz shares some background on the issue.
A New York City diner, famous for its milkshakes, started doing something a bit differently beginning in July 2018. Along with the milkshakes was a note reading, “Missing something in your drink? There’s a reason for that.”
The note did not say what was missing or why it was missing. But what they were referring to were the plastic straws typically delivered with the milkshakes. The diner decided it would be best if patrons asked what was missing and why. This way, the server had an opportunity to discuss what happens to plastic straws once they are disposed of.
This is just one example of the stop using plastic straws campaign. It has proven to be so successful in New York and around the country that there is even a trending hashtag, #StopSucking, which has been getting quite a bit of attention.
But Why Straws?
The truth of the matter is that banning the use of plastic straws will only have a minor impact on all the non-recyclable waste that ends up in landfills and waterways. But it’s a start. It gets people thinking, learning more about the environment and how their actions, whether it is not using plastic straws or eliminating the use of any other non-recyclable, non-renewable material, can make a change.
“Our straw campaign is not really about straws,” said Dune Ives, the executive director of Lonely Whale, an organization that led to the straw ban movement in Seattle. “It’s about pointing out how prevalent single-use plastics are in our lives. Putting up a mirror to hold us accountable. We’ve all been asleep at the wheel.”
Straws are certainly not new. They entered the American market in the late 19th century and most often they were made of paper. However, they were a bit pricey. But it was the changes made to the straws in the 1960s and 1970s that started causing an environmental problem. New production methods made them very inexpensive to produce and, because of this, very easy to toss away. Along with becoming far less costly to make, straws were, for the most part, no longer being made of paper. Instead, a non-biodegradable plastic was used.
We do not know exactly how many plastic straws are tossed each day in the US, but it is estimated that it is around 175 million.
So we are on the same page, “non-biodegradable” means the ingredients in the straws do not break down into compounds, such as carbon dioxide or water. When products are biodegradable, it means the materials used to make the product can break down in the environment without causing harm. In fact, very often they can be used for another purpose entirely.
The Life of a Tossed Plastic Straw
Because about about 175 million plastic straws are tossed away every day, and most all of these are non-biodegradable, what happens to them?
Using a restaurant as an example, this is what life looks like for a tossed plastic straw:
- The straw will be mixed in with other trash and placed in plastic liners, many of which are also not biodegradable
- Once collected by the trash collectors, the bags of trash are typically sent to large trash collection areas, where they are divided into, among other things, recyclable and non-recyclable items
- Because plastic does not decompose quickly, the final destination of our plastic straw is a landfill or it may be washed out into the ocean; by the way, a 2015 study published in Science Magazine reports we generate about 275 million metric tons of plastic waste each year.
- What happens next isn’t pretty. That plastic straw has the potential to kill marine life, partially through strangulation and choking. But even if it does not strangle or choke marine life, the straw can release toxic chemicals into the water, which can negatively impact marine life reproduction and also be carcinogenic.
- Eventually, what is termed “microplastics,” will become consumed by birds, fish, and other animals. From here, they can end up in our food chain.
We should add that researchers are not sure how harmful or toxic these microplastics are, at least when consumed by humans. However, if we were in a restaurant, and the waiter asked us if we would like a side order of microplastics, I’m pretty sure most of us would pass on the offer.
More cities around the US are starting to ban the use of plastic straws. Most, as you might assume, are in California and the Washington State area. However, New York City and Hawaii are considering banning the use of plastic straws, as are entire countries, such as Scotland, Taiwan, Chile, India, and others.
Restaurants around the country, just like our New York City diner, are taking their own steps to ban the use of plastic straws and Ikea, the worldwide retailer, has announced it has begun to phase out single-use plastics, which would include plastic straws. McDonald’s is testing paper straws in the UK. They want to see how well they hold up and if customers will use them.
As awareness of plastics waste grows, corporations and governments are increasingly addressing the issue of single-use plastics in general and plastics straws in particular. Eventually, the impact could be significant. In the meantime, by beginning to phase out the use of straws, businesses like Marriott International and the diner in NYC are using such initiatives to create a substantive dialogue with customers about the importance of protecting the environment.
Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning and buildings industry.