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The last straw

When someone orders a large, cold drink from most fast-food places, it typically comes in a plastic cup with a plastic lid and a plastic straw. It seems the plastic straw may soon become a thing of the past in many locations.

Starbucks announced in June that all of its stores around the world will stop using plastic straws by 2020, and many other chains and restaurants are following suit. Fast food giant McDonalds in the U.S. is bucking the trend for now; shareholders voted in May not to end the use of plastic straws, but the trend line is unmistakable.

Several municipalities in California have banned the plastic straws and lawmakers are considering a ban for the entire state. Officials in New York City are also considering a ban, and the move is global. Scotland will prohibit the use of plastic straws next year, and Britain plans to ban plastic straws and some other single-use plastic items next year.

Many of the people who are campaigning against the straws assert that U.S. consumers use 500 million of the straws every year. Most of them are not recycled; they break down into micro-plastics and end up in lakes, rivers and especially the planet’s oceans, where the tiny bits are eaten by fish and other sea creatures.

Some critics of the proposed ban have made much of the fact that the 500 million figure was an estimate made eight years ago by a boy named Milo Cress, who was nine-years-old at the time. California’s proposed bill envisioned levying a hefty fine against restaurants that violated the ban once it was adopted. In response, Reason Magazine wrote, “Criminalizing unsolicited straws seems like a rather heavy-handed approach to the problem, especially since we don’t actually know how big a problem it is.”

More authoritative sources have put the actual number of plastic straws used in the U.S. at about 370 million, but as Cress, now 17, told Money Magazine last month, “I think getting stuck on what the exact number is sort of misses the point of my project, which is to reduce our use and waste of straws. I think we could improve on pretty much any number as long as we’re continuing to waste plastic. Any number is too high.”

That is, of course, the point. Anyone who pays even a little bit of attention knows that millions of tons of all sorts of plastics are finding their way into the oceans every year. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a floating island located between Hawaii and California made of plastic items and tiny bits of plastic. The patch is now twice the size of Texas, according to a peer-reviewed study (tinyurl.com/ybefl23l) published in Science Reports.

And all that plastic in the ocean is anything but benign. National Geographic reported in June (tinyurl.com/ydap6ow5) that a pilot whale was found near Malasia struggling to survive, but it ultimately died. The report says, “The whale vomited up five plastic bags during the rescue attempt. It died... five days after the attempt began. A necropsy revealed that more than 17 pounds of plastic had clogged up the whale’s stomach, making it impossible for it to ingest nutritional food. This waste was in the form of 80 shopping bags and other plastic debris.”

Were there bits of plastic straws in the whale’s stomach? Again, that’s beside the point. The straws get into the ocean, break down, and are eaten by sea creatures. Straws are not the biggest plastic problem affecting the ocean, and banning them will not save the oceans from plastic pollution. But the ban is one step of several that should be taken to address the problem.

Some countries are taking a more encompassing approach. Taiwan is going to ban the sale and use of all single-use plastic items, which includes straws, cups and shopping bags, by 2030. That’s undoubtedly the best way to go.

In the meantime, however, there may be a reason not to ban plastic straws entirely; advocates for people with certain kinds of physical challenges says plastic straws are helpful to them, and they should have access to them. For the rest of us glass, metal and paper straws are available, and we should not continue to enlarge the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and harm sea life just because we’ve become use to sipping our soda and ice tea through plastic tubes.

Plastic straws are a symbol of our collective disregard for the negative impact humans can have when they put profits or human convenience above the environmental health and wellbeing of the planet. As such, the straws should be banned even though many more steps will need to be taken to mitigate the damage human activity is causing on our oceans.

 

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