Environment

It’s Time to Stop Using Plastic Drinking Straws: They Harm Wildlife and Are Bad for the Environment (Video)

Americans use 500 million plastic straws every single day.

plastic straws
Photo Credit: frankieleon/Flickr CC

When it comes to environmental issues facing our planet, everybody likes to pass the buck. Conscientious consumers will blame big business for wasteful production practices. Corporations in turn contend they are merely meeting supply and demand. Neither group is completely wrong. The real problem, though, comes when both sides aren’t willing to change their behavior.

For an example, look no further than the humble plastic drinking straw.

It’s estimated that Americans use 500 million plastic straws every single day. Here’s a scary visual to help comprehend that amount: If you were to connect all those straws together, they would measure two and a half times the circumference of the Earth. That’s just the straws consumed in the United States. And the vast majority of them don't get recycled.

Before we get into why this is a problem—and what can and should be done about it—let’s look at what brought us to this proliferation of plastic in the first place.

The notion of drinking from a straw is nothing new. The Mesopotamians drank water out of reeds 7,000 years ago, as did the Chinese for rice wine. In ancient Egypt, straws served as a filtering mechanism against pesky insects that found their way into people’s cups at night. For Western folk, the practice really took off in 1888 with the invention of the paper straw. Not too long after that, the spread of contagious diseases such as polio and tuberculosis led to a fear of contaminated glassware, and with it, a perceived necessity for drinking straws.

Midway through the last century, a few things changed. For starters, the spread of disease became less of a concern (remember, this was before the rise of anti-vaxxers). Around that same time, thanks to the likes of McDonald’s, the world was introduced to the concept of fast food and disposable meal packaging. Another major innovation came in the 1960s, when plastics began replacing paper. Straws went from being an easily recyclable beverage accoutrement to an oil-based, single-use object found in restaurants and bars across the globe.

Fast-forward to today and straws have become so ingrained in our culture that most drinks are served with them by default. If you’re reading this, chances are high that until this moment you've never given these plastic accessories a second thought. But you really should.

Most straws today are made from a petroleum-based plastic called polypropylene. This means straws represent yet another product that requires fossil fuel extraction. You don’t need to be an eco-warrior to know how that affects climate change. Making all these straws puts an undue strain on the climate (the production of 1,000 kilograms of polypropylene releases 3,530 kilograms of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas).

That’s not to mention the many health-related concerns surrounding plastic. Many might recall first hearing about the chemical, BPA, back in 2008 when it was revealed how this toxin was commonly found in plastic packaging. In short, it turned out certain plastics containing BPA released synthetic estrogen that posed serious health-related issues. Later testing would show that even plastics such as polypropylene, that claimed to be BPA-free, still tested positive for leaking synthetic estrogens.

Then there’s disposal—nearly every piece of plastic ever made is still in existence. Items such as straws are notorious for their ability to stick around, and in most cases, like many single-use plastics, end up littering the ocean, where they can injure and kill wildlife, including endangered sea turtles.

Watch a video of rescuers removing a plastic drinking straw from a turtle's nostril:

Unfortunately, this problem is only going to get worse before it (potentially) gets better. According to the market research firm Freedonia, the U.S. demand for foodservice disposables is predicted to climb by 3.6 percent in the next year. This is due in part to our desire for convenience, which Doug Woodring, co-founder of the non-profit Ocean Recovery Alliance, equates to a form of “thoughtlessness.”

“The vendors think the consumers want [straws], and the consumers are too slow and can’t be bothered to say they don’t need one when it’s served to them,” said Woodring. “Both sides are complacent in the problem. People are simply numb to this issue.”

Brother-sister duo Carter and Olivia Ries, co-founders of the environmental conservation non-profit One More Generation, came to the same conclusion as Woodring. “We wanted to show people that this is an issue that affects humans and animals,” said 14-year-old Olivia Ries, who realized along with her brother that the only way they could inspire the change they wanted to see was by creating accountability. Enter the siblings’ One Less Straw pledge campaign.

Essentially, this campaign aims to create a firmer commitment to reduced straw use. For the month of October, the Ries kids targeted three groups: fellow students, schools and restaurants. By pledging, each group agreed to the following:

  • Students had to get one adult family member to sign the pledge. If the student catches the adult using a straw during October, that adult has to pay a predetermined dollar amount to the student. The student then donates those collected funds to the campaign at the end of October, helping to fund further education around plastic pollution.

  • Schools sign up members of their student body, who in turn charge fines to their fellow family members. The school will use the collected funds to provide further environmental education.

  • Restaurants involved in the pledge can only hand out straws to customers who specifically ask for one. Waitstaff can also wear buttons educating customers about the campaign.

So far, the campaign has generated incredible support, both locally and abroad. In total, participants from 28 countries have taken part in the campaign. “I’m actually really surprised by how big it’s gotten,” said Olivia, of the 1,000 signed pledges, 15 local restaurants and a dozen hotels that have commited to going straw-free. “I think the incentives have really helped motivate those who aren’t particularly passionate about the cause,” she said.

Carter and Olivia Ries launched the One Less Straw campaign to get consumers to stop using plastic drinking straws. (image: One Less Straw)

Along with One Less Straw, a number of other similar pledge campaigns have been set up to encourage an end to plastic straws. Though each differs slightly in its approach, all share the same basic tips for joining the cause:

  • If you don’t need a straw, don’t use one. If you do need one because you really like the sensation, or have a handicap of some sort, buy yourself a reusable straw.

  • Start asking for no straw when you are served food and even try to encourage your local eatery to avoid automatically handing straws out with every drink.

  • For businesses interested in joining the effort, offer your patrons alternative solutions such as paper, glass, or stainless steel straws.

“I think it’s a bit of a marketing thing, where establishments think they’re adding value to the drink, when probably a lot of people couldn’t care less, but don’t have the time or energy to do anything about it,” said Woodring, who believes if more establishments could simply stop serving straws with their drinks, straw use would go down drastically.

The Ries siblings and all the world's children are inheriting the planet from us adults. Instead of letting them and the environment draw the short straw for the planet’s future health, let’s stop using straws altogether.

Feeling inspired? Sign Carter and Olivia Ries' One Less Straw pledge.

Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York. He tweets infrequently @RobScherHimself.

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