What’s the Big Deal about Plastic Straws?

straws colorful, Photo by Bilderjet on Pixabay
Photo by Bilderjet on Pixabay

There was an article this past Sunday in the Chattanooga Times Free Press about a coalition of aquariums across the United States that are striving to reduce the use of plastic straws. The coalition is called the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP) and is a collaboration of 22 public aquariums in 17 states, including the Tennessee Aquarium. They are “committed to advancing conservation of the world’s ocean, lakes, and rivers through consumer engagement, business leadership and policy changes.”

Aquariums are awesome and full of wonder and thousands of children go through them daily. So they are poised to be leaders in positive change, and this is a great example of that! One of the things they’re doing is asking restaurants and others in the hospitality industry to reduce the use of straws by only giving them out upon request, instead of automatically. They’re also asking individuals like you to sign this pledge to stop using plastic straws.

My son in awe at the Tennessee Aquarium when he was just 2 and a half. Photo by me.
My son in awe at the Tennessee Aquarium when he was just 2 and a half. Photo by me.

“Partnership companies have eliminated more than 5 millions straws per year,” the article says. But in the United States alone, we are using 500 million disposable plastic straws per dayThe article refers back to a recent study about microplastic pollution in the Tennessee River, which I’ll write about in a future post. The article also mentioned that the Tennessee Aquarium has switched to recyclable paper straws.

But the article failed to explain why plastic straws are such a problem, and here’s why I think that. They posted a poll through the online version of the newspaper, asking “Do you thinking banning plastic straws is helpful?” The results: Yes 49%, No 51%. I was so SAD to see such results. After all the recent media about disposable plastic straws, people still don’t understand the ramifications of single-use disposable plastic?

Well, I seek to change that and help people understand. Let’s be the change together!

Colored plastic straws sorted by color. Image by Marjon Besteman-Horn from Pixabay
Image by Marjon Besteman-Horn from Pixabay

So what’s wrong with plastic straws?

First, the sheer amount of them! Just like with all single-use disposable plastic products, it’s the over-consumption and the over-dependency we have on them. Think 500 million straws per day. That’s more than one straw per person per day in the United States. Our consumption has gone way overboard and has created a waste stream that is too large for us to keep up with! Second, they are not recyclable at all.

But I’m not here to judge. And I’m not here to shame you. I’m here to encourage you to START TODAY. Politely refuse those plastic straws – if everyone refuses just one straw per day, we’ll more than cut our usage in half! What if 75% of refused them every day? I’m no mathematician, but that’s a lot of waste that just wouldn’t happen.

“Between 170 and 390 million straws are used per day in the United States.” –Living Without Plastic: More Than 100 Easy Swaps for Home, Travel, Dining, Holidays, and Beyond 

I threw my disposables into the trash/recycling receptacle like I’m supposed to – isn’t that enough? How is it ending up in the rivers and ocean?

I think one of the critical issues with all the media about single-use disposable plastics is that the biggest question is often not answered: How does the plastic end up in the ocean in the first place?

Most people assume that once they’ve placed their disposables into a receptacle, those disposables go to the proper facility. What people don’t know – and I didn’t either until just a couple of years ago – is that that item may not make it to the recycling facility or landfill. And that’s out of our control, so isn’t it impossible to do anything about it?

No. It’s not impossible by any means. The best way to guarantee that your single-use disposable plastics don’t end up in the ocean is…

To just not use them! Refuse them. Find an alternative. Then you do have control. We have the power to be the change.

So back to the question – how is it ending up in the rivers and ocean?

There are so many causes! Spillage from recycling that has been transported across the ocean for years to Asia; plastic products shipped across the ocean to the U.S. have spilled from ships; the fishing industry; trash and litter that gets blown or washed into water streams such as rivers, that then feed into the ocean; illegal dumping; people leaving trash on beaches, waterways, and from personal watercraft; microbeads washing down drains; and debris from natural disasters and floods. Plastic bags are picked up by the wind and blown into waterways that flow into the ocean.

Single use disposable plastic straw found buried in the sand, Hilton Head Island, October 2018. Photo by me.
Single-use disposable plastic straw found buried in the sand, Hilton Head Island, October 2018. Photo by me.

Have you noticed plastic straws have been in the media lately?

Our family hasn’t used plastic straws since before it was the trend, and I’m happy to see others coming on board. We mostly just don’t use straws but we do carry a reusable stainless steel straw with us for when we need it.

If you Google “plastic straws” you will get an array of news stories either supporting the end of plastic straws or arguing against (since it is only one small part of the greater problem of single-use disposable plastics). If you Google “plastic straws ban” there are even more articles about cities and states that are either implementing or working on a legislative plastic straw ban. I’m not going to summarize either of those searches here because, frankly, it would take me several posts to write such a summary. However, I encourage you to read up on it – after you finish reading my post first, that is. The following meme will make a lot more sense, too.

Forest Gump on straws, I couldn't stop giggling at this, so I'm reposting it here.
I couldn’t stop giggling at this, so I’m reposting it here.

I believe that many of these things cannot be legislated solely, that there must be a drive that is tied to economics. Disclaimer: I am not an economist. But here’s what I think: If consumers are asking businesses they patronize to stop using certain items, such as single-use disposable plastics, the consumer also has the power to not patronize that business. If consumers refuse to spend money at a business because that business does not do or provide what consumers want, then that business will be forced to change if they want to maintain profitability.

Starbucks is one company that is striving to end use of plastic straws by 2020. Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash
Starbucks is one company that is striving to end the use of plastic straws by 2020. Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Ok, so what steps can I take?

First, let’s support the Aquarium Conservation Partnership. You can do this by signing the pledge: https://pledge.ourhands.org/.

Second, refuse. Just say no thank you. To all single-use disposable plastics. Because recycling is not the answer. Only about 9% of our plastics get recycled. That means 91% is not recycled!

Third, if you must have something commonly produced as a single-use disposable plastic, like a straw, please buy a reusable one. Paper disposables and supposedly biodegradable straws are a better option, but it’s still going to be thrown away after one use. Try one of these (these are affiliate links): stainless steel straw; glass straw; or a bamboo straw.

Fourth, tell others! Tell your friends, your co-workers, your favorite restaurant, the local coffee shop, your local school. So many people to tell!

Fifth, participate in clean-up efforts. Join the Litterati. Maybe you’ll keep some of the trash you pick up from entering the ocean.

Last, stop supporting businesses that just won’t get on board. Go somewhere else.

Final Thoughts

I think that we all, collectively, have the power to create change just by modeling. Now I don’t mean on the runway – think in the psychological sense, or if you’re a parent – you want to model the best behavior. Refuse that straw. Be polite, of course. But just say no. If everyone starts refusing straws, businesses won’t have the need to order as many. Then the plastic straw manufacturers will have to produce less. And then less will end up in the landfill, in nature, and in the oceans. It will be a utopia! Ok, maybe not, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. And let’s all sign the pledge to refuse straws when we go anywhere – to the coffee shop, restaurant, or movie theater.

Be the change! And as always, thanks for reading.

This post contains affiliate links. Proceeds help me pay for the cost of running the blog.

Jack-O’-Lanterns and Fall Pumpkins: Please Compost

Last updated on March 27, 2021.

pumpkins, Photo by Katie Burkhart on Unsplash
Photo by Katie Burkhart on Unsplash

Halloween was a week ago, is your Jack-O’-Lantern still around? Do you still have fall pumpkins around your home? Please read this before you dispose of them!

Don’t you just love fall and pumpkins? The colors, the smells, the flavors?

Fall includes fun holidays such as Halloween and Thanksgiving. Pumpkins, of course, are one of the main natural items we associate with Fall. We use pumpkins to decorate and make food.  Some use squash or gourds for decorations. I think it’s awesome if you’re using nature’s creations instead of plastic decorations! But what do you do with those items after their prime?

Compost them, that is the simplest answer.

Decorating Pumpkins/Jack-O’-Lanterns

Carving pumpkins is a fun and creative tradition. But it’s best to keep it simple. Try to avoid using paint, plastic decorations, glitter, and glues on the pumpkins, as those things can have toxins and will not break down. They could also harm wildlife down the line. I have read that some use petroleum jelly to prevent spoilage, and I think I’ve even tried that in the past. But petroleum jelly is a by-product of crude oil waste and therefore not environmentally friendly.

Jack O'Lanterns, Photo by Bekir Dönmez on Unsplash
Photo by Bekir Dönmez on Unsplash

Please don’t put them in a landfill!

The U.S. Department of Energy has indicated that approximately 1.3 billion pounds of pumpkins are thrown in landfills. Since nothing breaks down in a landfill, the pumpkins release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas, which contributes to global warming.The Department of Energy someday hopes to convert greenhouse gas emissions from landfills into energy, but until that infrastructure exists, avoid the landfills.

If you compost already, just toss your pumpkin in! Feel free to chop it into smaller chunks first, but it will do fine whole. If you’re not composting, I have some other options for the pumpkins. If you want to know how I compost and learn how easy it is, please read my article.

Child placing a candle inside of a Jack O' Lantern
Photo by me

Other options

If you cannot compost your carved pumpkins or squash decorations, one option is that you can feed these items to livestock. Does a family member or friend own a farm? If not, maybe try offering them to a farm nearby for their animals. The local food bank or urban garden may have a compost bin, to which you may donate your pumpkin. Again, make sure they are free of plastic, glue, paint, etc.

Another option is to let your pumpkin rot, preferably in the woods somewhere, where animals, insects, and birds can ingest it. I’m not suggesting trespassing into the National Forests to do this. But if you live near a small forest or wooded area and no one would notice or care if you left your pumpkin, it will break down naturally. It’s certainly better than putting it in a landfill!

Food Waste

Last, there are lots of people who are concerned about food waste with pumpkins, and that is a valid point. I advocate using natural items over plastic items for decoration in nearly every situation. Perhaps we should use pumpkins for decoration, not carve them, and then make a pumpkin recipe from them! This would reduce food waste nationwide.

Bowl of pumpkin soup on a green napkin and wooden spoon.
Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

I’d love to know what you plan to do with your pumpkin, and what your ideas are! Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

Weekend trip to Hilton Head Island

Sunset in Hilton Head
Sunset in Hilton Head

Our family loves Hilton Head Island (HHI) for a variety of reasons. First, my husband and I got married there. What drew us there before marriage was that dogs are allowed on the beach during the day, after Labor Day. But then we discovered some other things about the island, besides its natural beauty, cleanliness, and great restaurants.

One thing that impresses us is that there are no billboards or neon signs littering the landscape because ordinances keep signs low and unobtrusive. No building can be taller than the trees. Hilton Head also has a sea turtle protection project. The town requires light structures visible from the beach be covered or turned off between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am during nesting and hatching season, which spans May through October. Lights out for Turtles provides information for visitors that can promote the survival of the turtles.

Full rainbow!
Full rainbow!

We’ve taken many trips to HHI, including this past weekend, and we had a wonderful and relaxing time. Of course, we saw beautiful sunsets and sunrises. We witnessed a full rainbow, which was my first time seeing one (see my pitiful attempt at a panoramic image above). We saw a stingray trapped in a tidal pool, which was cool to see up close. But we alerted someone who was able to move it back to the ocean so that it didn’t die. And we saw a ghost crab up close – so cool!

A Clean Beach

I mentioned that HHI is very clean, especially compared to other beaches we’ve been. Since we are a family that cleans up litter and trash, we pay attention. So for a clean beach, here’s some of the trash we picked up and posted to Litterati:

Seems like a lot, doesn’t it? Well it wasn’t, comparatively. We found straws which I’ve determined to be the most evil single use disposable plastic thing in use! We found cigarette butts, pieces of Styrofoam, and microplastics. The image of the bag of trash was from a garbage can that blew over during high winds and the trash scattered. We collected all we could but it was far too windy to try and photograph each piece. The contents of that were mainly single use disposable drink bottles. We found some beach toys, as we usually do. (My friend in the South Outer Banks collects abandoned beach toys in her area). I promise we didn’t take these from someone! They sat abandoned for a long time, and I didn’t want them to wash out to sea during high tide!

Plastic Bag Ban!

On our last evening, we stopped at the ice cream shop. As I was paying, I saw a sign posted by the register, and I think I startled the clerk with my excited reaction!

Plastic bag ban ordinance in Hilton Head
Plastic bag ban ordinance!

The Town of Hilton Head Island passed this ordinance in January 2018. It does not ban all plastic bags, such as produce and meat bags; however, it is a huge, progressive step in the right direction. Eating my ice cream, I felt inspired – could I get that ordinance passed in my city? What a huge task that would be…but maybe I could do it.

I’m thinking it over. If I try for it, I’ll definitely be posting about it here regularly.

All photos in this post were taken by me.

The day I saw a turtle walking by plastic trash…

Turtle in Morehead City, North Carolina. Notice the plastic trash just a few feet away from him. I took this photo in April 2018.
Turtle in Morehead City, North Carolina. Notice the plastic trash just a few feet away from him. I took this photo in April 2018.

If you’ve read my About Me page then you’ve seen part of this story already. Our family vacationed in the Southern Outer Banks to visit my best friend from college, and while we were exploring Morehead City one afternoon, we saw this turtle walking by discarded plastic. We took images of the turtle and the trash and shared it with Litterati (if you’re not familiar with Litterati, read my post on the organization). The turtle walked back to the water, and we picked up the trash, of course. But what a moment in litter clean up and beach going that was!

I hope if you ever see something similar, you are inspired to clean up the trash and reduce plastic waste.