Of the eight million tons of plastic trash that flow every year into the world’s oceans, the plastic drinking straw is surely not a top contributor to all that tonnage.
Yet this small, slender tube, utterly unnecessary for most beverage consumption, is at the center of a growing environmental campaign aimed at convincing people to stop using straws to help save the oceans.
Small and lightweight, straws often never make it into recycling bins; the evidence of this failure is clearly visible on any beach. And although straws amount to a tiny fraction of ocean plastic, their size makes them one of the most insidious polluters because they entangle marine animals and are consumed by fish. Video of scientists removing a straw embedded in a sea turtle’s nose went viral in 2015.
“If you have the opportunity to make this choice and not to use a plastic straw, this can help keep this item off our beaches and raise awareness on plastic in the ocean,” says Jenna Jambeck, the University of Georgia engineering professor whose ground-breaking 2015 study was the first measurement of how much plastic debris enters the ocean every year. “And if you can make this one choice, maybe you can do even more.”
Straws are the latest on an expanding list of individual plastic products being banned, taxed, or boycotted in an effort to curb seaborn plastic trash before it outweighs fish, a calculation projected to come true by 2050, according to one study.
Last fall, California became the first state in the nation to ban plastic bags, joining a host of nations that already do so, including Kenya, China, Bangladesh, Rwanda, and Macedonia. France not only banned plastic bags, it has become the first country to also ban plastic plates, cups, and utensils, beginning in 2020. San Francisco banned polystyrene, including Styrofoam cups and food containers, packaging peanuts, and beach toys. And in Rhode Island, the release of celebratory balloons is being targeted by activists, after almost 2,200 balloons were picked up on the shores of Aquidneck Island in the last four years.
The plastics industry opposes bans at every turn. Bag manufacturers have persuaded lawmakers in Florida, Missouri, Idaho, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Indiana to pass legislation outlawing the bag bans.
Keith Christman, managing director for plastic markets for the American Chemistry Council, says the industry also will oppose any efforts to outlaw plastic straws.
Bans of individual products often come with “unintended consequences,” Christman argues. Replacement products can cause more environmental harm than plastic products there were banned, he says. In some cases, products advertised as biodegradable sometimes turn out not to be. Worse, consumer behavior sometimes changes. When San Francisco banned Styrofoam products, he says, an audit of litter showed that while Styrofoam cup litter dropped, paper cup litter increased.
“What we really need is good waste management structure in countries that are the largest source of this challenge,” he says. “Rapidly developing countries in Asia don’t have that structure.”
What sets the anti-straw campaign apart from other efforts—and why the anti-straw campaign may succeed—is that activists are not seeking to change laws or regulations. They are merely asking consumers to change their habits and say no to straws.
Stemming the Tide?
Once found mostly in soda fountains of the 1930s, straws have become one of the most ubiquitous unnecessary products on the planet. No global usage figures exist, but Americans alone use 500 million straws daily, according to the National Park Service. Except for people with medical needs, straws are not needed to consume beverages or water.
“Ten years ago, straws weren’t everywhere. It used to be at a bar, you’d get a straw. Now you order a damn glass of ice water and they put a straw in it,” says Douglas Woodring, founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance, a Hong Kong-based group that is working to reduce ocean trash. “Part of it, I suspect, came from people’s fear of germs.”
He noticed the uptick in straw use after the 2003 outbreak of the SARS respiratory illness that began in China and spread to more than two dozen countries in the Americas and Europe and infected 8,098 people, killing 774 of them.
“All of a sudden, straws propagated,” he says. “Then consumers took them for granted that they had to have their straw, even though most don’t need it.”
As straws proliferated, so did anti-straw campaigns. Some groups have attention-getting names like Straw Wars, in London’s Soho neighborhood, or Straws Suck, used by the worldwide Surfrider Foundation. Others have been organized by pint-sized environmentalists, such as the OneLessStraw campaign, set up by a sister-and-brother team, Olivia Ries and Carter Ries, when they were aged 7 and 8.
If fear of germs drove the straw use globally into the billions, the eight-minute video of a four-inch section of straw being removed from a Costa Rican sea turtle’s nostril may have turned the tide. The video is painful to watch, and has been viewed more than 11 million times on YouTube.
Linda Booker, a North Carolina filmmaker, whose documentary, Straws, is making the rounds of the spring film festival circuit in the United States, says the turtle video, in part, inspired her to take on straws as a film project. She interviewed the scientists and included them in her film.
“I believe a lot of the catalyst for these straw campaigns was the video of the straw in the turtle’s nose,” she says.
The latest entrant in the anti-straw campaign is the Lonely Whale Foundation, a nonprofit co-founded by actor Adrian Grenier, who recently added his celebrity wattage to the cause. He kicked off his effort at an ocean plastic conference in Charleston, South Carolina, this spring with a oft-told story about watching a waiter deliver a glass of water to his table with a straw.
“It’s a gateway, a way to start,” Grenier says. “A lot of times people are overwhelmed by the bigness of the problem and often give up. We need something achievable for everyday humans. The challenge is if we can get rid of plastic straws, let’s start there. Then we can move on from there.”