You must have surely heard something about plastic straws being recently banned in different parts of the world. The whole city of Paris will progressively remove plastic straws in all its municipal establishments from September on. Some U.S. cities (Seattle, San Francisco) have also passed some laws about it, and every time more companies are taking action to reduce straws and other single-use plastic utensils.
Why all this attention to plastic straws? How have they become the spotlight of all social media? I first thought that stop using my beloved straws once in a while would not make a real difference. I changed my mind when I learned that plastic straws represent 4% of all waste found in the sea. It is not about taking a radical approach to the issue, but rather a conscious one.
Plastic straws, still plastic
The focus on plastic straws began in 2015, when a video of a small turtle with a plastic straw stuck on its nose became viral. The video is certainly heart-breaking (the animal suffers when they try to get the waste away from its body), but for me, the cause of it is even more heartbreaking.
We have a plastic problem. A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. A trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. World plastic production has increased exponentially from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 162 million in 1993 to 448 million tons by 2015. How have we become so addicted?
Plastic really became an important element during WWII. The war demanded a great expansion of the plastic industry, but when the war ended, plastic companies needed to find alternative ways to outlast, and from the mid-century, plastics started to be mass-produced. Due to its malleability, the substance could be moulded in every kind of shape; unbreakable, water-resistant, this became the ultimate convenience material for making everything, from medical equipment to clothing. The synthetic material brought improvements in hygiene and enabled the distribution of clean food and water. However, few considered the consequences of plastic’s longevity.
It is unclear how long it takes for plastic to completely biodegrade into its constituent molecules, but estimates range from 450 years to never. In addition, about 8 percent of the world’s oil production is used to make plastic. Bear in mind: ocean plastic is not as complicated as climate change. It is not a problem where we don’t know what the solution is. There are ways to pick up, dispose and recycle the plastic waste. Instead, it is a matter of building the necessary institutions and systems.
From the 8.3 billion tons of plastic that have been produced since the 1950’s, only 9% is recycled and 12% incinerated nowadays. The rest, most of the times accumulates in landfills or ends up in the oceans, where they are ingested by the sea fauna, or build up in the form of islands, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Some countries, like the U.S. and China have some plastic trade agreement (where the U.S. sends part of its plastic waste to feed China’s industrial boom), but these are declining with time.
But again, why straws? In 2017, an international coastal clean-up collected 643,000 plastic straws in beaches all over the world. In fact, according to the association Ocean Conservancy, this element is the 10th waste element most found in the sea. The plastics that our straws are made from might be in theory recyclable, but most aren’t. Due to its small size and lightweight, these elements often cannot be captured by modern recycling equipment, and instead they end up dumped in landfills.
Reducing our use of plastic straws won’t solve our whole plastic problem, but as always, it is a good way to start. There are certainly many other ways to approach the issue, and many other harmful actions that should be treated soon. But, if saying “no” to these straws will reduce the amount of plastic accumulated in our coasts, then why not?
It is not that easy. Sometimes it might be difficult to find the best alternatives to plastic, and legislation progresses slowly. If we get some of the major brands, namely Starbucks, McDonald’s, Coca Cola, to take ownership of their contribution to the plastic problem and alter their business practices, they can be leaders in the matter and truly make a change. Nevertheless, we, as individuals and as consumers, should try to reduce our own plastic consumption in order create an incentive for these companies to change with us.