Most of us know that single-use plastics are a major problem which contributes greatly to marine pollution. But often times we feel powerless to help. Where do we even begin? The answer is with the easiest changes to make, also called the ‘low-hanging fruit”. For example, taking reusable bags every time we visit the grocery store. It’s something we can all do that takes minimal time, effort and energy.
Unfortunately, lots of marine pollution comes from sources outside our control. But on a recent trip to Fiji, I was made painfully aware of another ‘low hanging fruit’ with regards to single-use plastic pollution: plastic drinking straws. They’re ubiquitous in restaurants, arriving in a drink almost as a presumption. But they are also ubiquitous on the beach – hiding under rocks, poking up from the sand, resting under a palm tree. I collected as many as I could find, but picking them up isn’t enough. Stopping their use is the only way to ensure they stay out of the sea.
The straw was invented in the US in the 1880s, originally made from wax-coated paper. In the 1960’s advances in materials and manufacturing processes led to the development of the plastic straw. Their use has only increased since. On the global scale, drinking straws are a US $3 billion market, with plastic straws making up 99% of that business. In the US alone, more than 500 million drinking straws are used EVERY DAY.
Plastic straws come in at number 7 on the Ocean Conservancy’s most recent top 10 most common items collected from beach cleanups, just behind plastic cutlery (which also needs to be given the boot from our everyday lives). You may have seen the graphic video from earlier this year featuring a group of marine biologists in Costa Rica extracting a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nostril. Straws also end up in the guts of pelagic birds, along with lots of other plastic bits they mistake for food. Obviously, this is an issue that goes well beyond simple beach aesthetics.
Reducing our reliance on single-use plastics is challenging. But some things are easy to cut out. To me, straws are the logical next step in the fight against plastic. Just as reuseable grocery bags are becoming the norm, so should reuseable straws. Request your drinks without straws, and educate anyone who asks you why. Talk to the owners or managers of your favourite cafes and restaurants to see if straws can be made available by request only, or even not at all. Changing social norms around straws can be a powerful way to encourage others to stop using them too. And those social norms start with you.
Contributor: Andrea Greene Liberatore