Plastic Straws: Unfortunate and Unnecessary
Picture yourself sitting down to eat at your favorite restaurant. The server comes over to take your drink order and, voila! The server returns with your drinks – complete with, you guessed it, a plastic straw. The motion of popping a straw in each drink or tossing a handful of straws down on the table seems to be robotic. Plastic straws are a standard part of the average American server’s routine. In the US alone, 500 million plastic straws are used PER DAY. But why?
I have asked this question of many friends and family – why do you feel the need to drink from a straw? The responses vary. Most will say, “oh, it’s a health thing – I don’t want to put my mouth on the cup.” This response immediately leads me to wonder why someone would drink from the cup in the first place if they believed it was that dirty. I mean, the drink touches the cup! Others say, “hmm, I guess I never thought about it” and still other responses relate to having sensitive teeth, not wanting to mess up lipstick, and a desire to reduce staining of teeth.
OK, some of these reasons for wanting a straw are valid. But do they justify the widespread use of single-use plastic straws that can end up on beaches or in the stomachs of wildlife? It’s probably obvious what I think. But it’s not about opinions – it’s about the weight of the evidence and the fact that sustainable alternatives to plastic straws are readily available. If you strongly feel you must use a straw, check out how many non-plastic choices you have!
The impact of straws and other single-use plastics
By some estimates, 10% of all plastics produced on earth enter the ocean each year (UNEP 2005 marine litter report). Data from the International Coastal Cleanup indicates that plastic drinking straws are among the top 10 most common items found in beach cleanups. Other single-use plastic items typically make up 8 to 9 of the 10 most common marine debris items. Glass bottles and metal bottle caps are usually the only non-plastic items in the top 10.
According to a 2014 NOAA report (pdf), more than 660 marine species are impacted by plastics, and a large majority of them are eating plastic. You may be familiar with the fact that all 7 sea turtle species eat plastic, especially plastic grocery bags. In fact, a recent study estimated that 52% of all sea turtle individuals on earth have eaten plastic. That’s more than half! But, of course, that’s not all. Most marine mammals (dolphins, seals, manatees, whales) and up to 2/3 of seabird species are known to eat plastic. In ecosystems where plastic ingestion by fish has been studied, up to 36% of marine fish species were found to eat plastic. And that’s just the vertebrates… don’t get me started on the slew of invertebrates regularly dining on plastic fragments.
Animals that ingest plastic suffer many negative health effects, including direct effects such as dilution of food intake, gut blockage, starvation, laceration, ulceration, and infection. Ingestion of plastics can lead to a slow and painful death for the animal. And there are a whole host of suspected indirect effects caused by plastic ingestion. These include hormone disruption, reproductive impairment, reduced immune system function, toxin exposure, and disease development.
So, how will skipping straws help?
Cutting out plastic drinking straws may seem like an insignificant step toward solving the global plastic pollution issue. But, making one small change has the potential to lead to bigger changes. For one, ordering a drink and saying “no straw, please” is a great way to open up a conversation about plastic pollution with others at the table (and even the server). You may be surprised how many other people at the table will jump on the bandwagon with you and forego the straw in their own drink. Click here to download a printable card that you can leave behind at restaurants to encourage broader change.
Secondly, moving beyond straws and cutting out other single use plastics in your life will become easier and easier. Refusing single-use plastics whenever possible is important because recycling of plastics is extremely inefficient and is not a solution to the plastic pollution problem. If you can remember to ask the server for no straw, you’ll probably also start to remember your reusable bags when going to the grocery store or grab your reusable mug or bottle before leaving the house. Soon, it will be second nature for you to avoid single-use plastics as a rule rather than an exception. You may even start going the extra mile and keeping silverware and reusable containers on hand in your car or bag. Then, you’ll be able to ditch plastic cutlery and foam take-out boxes.
Each small change will begin to add up, especially as the changes you make spread to your friends and family. Each piece of plastic we prevent from entering the ocean is a win. Plastic debris persist in the environment for generations. National Skip-A-Straw day is February 23rd, 2018 – but why wait? If you want to pledge to reduce your plastic use, head on over to this link and then #StopSucking!