What’s the Big Deal about Plastic Straws?

Last updated on December 11, 2022.

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

There is 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 to sign a 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 at the Tennessee Aquarium when he was just 2 and a half. Photo by me.

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 of them. Think 500 million plastic 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.

Don’t feel guilty about having used plastic straws. Just please refuse plastic straws – START TODAY. Politely refuse those plastic straws – if everyone refuses just one straw per day, we’ll more than cut our usage in half!

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

I threw my disposables into the trash/recycling receptacle like I’m supposed to, how are they ending up in the rivers and ocean?

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 is that many items don’t make it to the recycling facility or landfill. Since that’s out of our control, it seems impossible to do anything about it. But 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 are plastics 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 regularly dumps their trash into the ocean; trash and litter get blown or washed into storm drains and rivers that then feed into the ocean; illegal dumping; beach trash; river pollution; 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.

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 (linked under Additional Resources below).

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 a stainless steel straw, glass straw, or bamboo straw.

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

Collectively, have the power to create change just by modeling the best behavior. Refuse that straw. Be polite, of course. But just say no. You might influence someone else to refuse straws too. 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 landfills, in nature, and in the oceans. Carry a reusable stainless steel straw with you. Be the change! And as always, thanks for reading.

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

Additional Resource:

First Step, Skipping the Plastic Straw Pledge.

Footnote:

Sea Turtles are Endangered

Last updated on June 11, 2022.

Sea Turtle swimming in the ocean. Photo by Erin Simmons on Unsplash.
Photo by Erin Simmons on Unsplash.

Sea turtles are endangered, which is probably not news to you, but you may not know the reasons they are endangered. They are keystone species, meaning they play a crucial role in the way an ecosystem functions. According to Oceana.org,sea turtles “play an important role in ocean ecosystems by maintaining healthy seagrass beds and coral reefs, providing key habitat for other marine life, helping to balance marine food webs and facilitating nutrient cycling from water to land.” I want to help people understand what we can do right NOW to help.

Sea turtles have been on the Earth for at least 110 million years, and now human activities are to blame for their decline and endangerment. All 7 sea turtle species are vulnerable, threatened, or endangered due to human behaviors and activities. Following are the biggest threats:

    • Entanglement and Bycatch
    • Coastal development
    • Artificial Light
    • Coastal Armoring
    • Plastics
    • Beach (and Ocean) Litter
    • Ocean pollution
    • Global warming
    • Poaching and illegal trade of eggs, meat, and shells
    • Turtle Shell Trade

Let’s examine each of those further.

A green sea turtle entangled in derelict fishing gear at Pearl and Hermes Atoll.
“A protected green turtle entangled in derelict fishing gear at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Three green sea turtles were freed during the mission.” Photo by NOAA Photo Library on Flickr (NOAA News 2014 October 28), Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Entanglement and Bycatch

Entanglement is exactly what it sounds like, that is, entanglement in fishing nets and gear. Up to 40% of all animals caught in fisheries are discarded as waste. Bycatch refers to animals that were not the target catch – for example, dolphins getting caught in tuna nets. “Despite ‘Dolphin Safe Tuna’ labeling, approximately 1000 dolphins die as bycatch in the Eastern Tropical Pacific tuna fishery each year,” according to seeturtles.org. The World Wildlife Fund explains that “modern fishing gear, often undetectable by sight and extremely strong, is very efficient at catching the desired fish species—as well as anything else in its path.” Most often the animals die.

There are some protections for certain species, such as the dolphins mentioned above, but it is not a perfect system and the whole industry needs to find more solutions. “Each year hundreds of thousands of adult and immature sea turtles are accidentally captured in fisheries ranging from highly mechanized operations to small-scale fishermen around the world.” Companies that use devices called Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) are following regulations and best practices.

What can you do? Try to only buy responsibly caught seafood. Inform and encourage your family and friends to purchase seafood only from responsible fisheries.

Humans removing fishing line and hook from a sea turtle's mouth.
Photo by NOAA Photo Library on Flickr (NOAA/NMFS/Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center Blog), Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Coastal Development

Coastal development is exactly what it sounds like. “Half of the world’s population lives on or within 100 miles of a coastline and this number will likely increase dramatically in the next decade.” Human presence deters turtles from nesting where they would normally. Additionally, humans create pollution and waste – whether it’s litter or waste-water runoff, light pollution, or danger from vehicles driving on beaches.

What can you do? Whether you’re just vacationing at a beach or residing there, educate yourself about habitats in that area. First, follow the scout rule of “leave it cleaner than you found it.” That means leaving no trace! And pick up after other people too, because it’s the right thing to do.

Second, always limit light on beaches (this will allow you to see the stars, too!). Are there conservation efforts ongoing? Are there laws prohibiting certain practices to protect turtles? If so, make sure you follow the laws or best practices. You’ll be making a difference. If you’re going to live coastal, this is even more important – search the internet for where you live so that you can do the right thing, and be the change.

No laws or conservation efforts where you live? How about starting those efforts? You can partner with a local aquarium; lobby city or town council to get signs posted near the beach access points; even host a local seminar at the library and invite residents!

Turn Off The Lights

As mentioned above, artificial light from human presence is a big problem for turtle nests. Sea turtles depend on a dark and quiet beach for nesting. If there is too much light, turtles will choose a less optimal nest site, which reduces the chances of the baby sea turtles surviving. Also, hatchlings have an instinct that leads them in the brightest direction which is normally moonlight reflecting off of the ocean. Excess lighting from the nearby buildings and streets draws hatchlings toward land instead, where they will likely die from predators, humans, or even swimming pools.

What can you do? Eliminate light whether you’re a property or homeowner, tourist, or beach walker. Make your property low light and encourage others to do the same – especially during nesting season!

If you’re walking on the beach at night, don’t use flashlights and phone lights during nesting season. Download a red flashlight app if you must have some light. If you live in a beach-front residence, turn your lights off. I’ve listed an article about turtle-friendly lighting under Additional Resources.

Here is a video from the Sea Turtle Conservancy about how to eliminate artificial beach lighting:

Coastal Armoring

Beaches are beautiful and the place many people want to be, myself included, someday. Coastal areas are prime real estate and many beaches in the world have been heavily developed. Coastal armoring refers to sea walls and similar structures that protect real estate property, but they are harmful to sea turtles. The Sea Turtle Conservancy explains: “Sea walls directly threaten sea turtles by reducing or degrading suitable nesting habitat. They block turtles from reaching the upper portion of the beach, causing turtles to nest in less-than-optimal nesting areas lower on the beach where their nests are more susceptible to wave action and more likely to be covered with water.”

What can you do? If you’re a developer or building a home for yourself, please always first check with local legislation. Many coastal places in the United States already have existing legislation sometimes called Coastal Zone Protection, Dune Protection, or Dune Management. You can search the internet for the area you are residing in or visiting for information. If your area of interest has no protections or current legislation, how about proposing it to the local council or government? Please don’t build anything without first doing careful research – there are a ton of organizations out there that can advise or point you in the right direction. Do your homework, and the turtles (as well as other wildlife, humans, and the environment) will reap the benefits. Be the change.

Plastics

Well, this topic is what my blog is all about: plastics and other human-made waste. Hundreds of thousands of marine animals and fish, as well as over 1 million seabirds, die each year from ocean pollution and ingestion or entanglement in marine debris. This includes turtles. Most plastic waste reaches the ocean via rivers, and up to 80% of this waste comes from landfill-bound trash. How does that happen!?!? I’ll get into that in another post.

Plastic bags are a huge factor when it comes to sea turtles. Why? Because turtles eat plastic bags. They mistake them for jellyfish. Many species of turtles do not have taste buds, in case you’re wondering why they can’t tell by taste. See the videos below. The first one shows you the difference between a jellyfish and a plastic bag floating in the water.

The next video shows you turtles eating a jellyfish, to give you visual context.

What can you do? My number one recommendation for the first thing you should change to make a difference: use reusable bags only, and don’t accept plastic bags from anywhere! Getting rid of plastic bags does and will keep making a big difference on so many fronts, so I can’t stress this enough!

After plastic bags, start eliminating all plastics from your life, especially single-use disposable plastics. Recycle, or better yet, don’t buy plastic as much as possible. “Over 1 million marine animals (including mammals, fish, sharks, turtles, and birds) are killed each year due to plastic debris in the ocean. More than 80% of this plastic comes from land. It washes out from our beaches and streets. Plastic travels through storm drains into streams and rivers. It flies away from landfills into our seas. As a result, thousands of sea turtles accidentally swallow these plastics, mistaking them for food.”

Plastic bag from Walmart lying on the beach. I photographed this bag myself and yes, I did pick it up. At high tide that afternoon, it would've washed into the ocean and potentially harmed a sea turtle.
Plastic bag from Walmart lying on the beach. I photographed this bag myself and disposed of it. At high tide that afternoon, it would’ve washed into the ocean and potentially harmed a sea turtle.

Stop using disposable plastic straws and decline them at restaurants. Besides plastic breaking down into smaller pieces and polluting beaches and the ocean, these get stuck in turtles’ nostrils and airways. You don’t need a straw to drink most beverages. If you really must have one, carry a metal or glass straw with you.

Don’t release helium balloons! They burst and fall to the Earth or the sea, and sea turtles mistakenly eat the balloons and die. Or stop using balloons altogether.

Three people on a beach with over 100 collected balloons found during a beach clean-up.
“100 Balloons Collected at a Clean-up at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on the New Jersey coast.” Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Beach (and Ocean) Litter

Besides trash flowing into the ocean, litter on beaches prevents hatchlings from reaching the sea.

What can you do? Keep beaches clean. Don’t leave behind litter or beach toys when visiting the beach. I try to leave the beach a little cleaner than I found it, picking up trash that is about to wash into the sea with the changing tides. Participate in beach clean-up events or clean up with your friends or family.

Use coral reef-friendly sunscreen. Many of your average sunscreens have chemicals in them that are not only harmful to the ocean, but also to the human body. Look at the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Sunscreen Guide (see Additional Resources for the link).

Ocean Pollution

Although trash and plastics are one component, there are many, many other ways in which human activities pollute the ocean. Waste and by-products, like toxic metals, PCBs, petroleum products, agricultural and industrial runoff of contaminants such as fertilizers, chemicals, nutrients, and untreated waste; are all major problems for ocean and land dwellers. These are also causing major human health problems (many major diseases can be tied to these chemicals – again, another topic for another day). Oil companies are a big contributor to pollution, above and beyond oil spills.

What can you do? Buy less and consume less overall. Reduce how much meat you eat and how many animal products you use, because agriculture creates a lot of waste, methane, and chemicals. These chemicals make it into waterways and then the ocean, which poisons wildlife throughout the food chain. Buying from a farmer’s market locally or even growing your own food can reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticide chemicals that make it into our water (because smaller farms don’t always use such harsh chemicals, and I doubt you do in your own garden). Reduce the chemicals you use in your yard and dispose of others properly through the hazardous waste collection in your area.

Global Warming

This is a sensitive topic because it is so tied to politics these days. But global warming is real and happening, at an accelerated rate, which means many species will not be able to adapt quickly enough. This means the possible extinction of plants and animals and fish that are necessary to Earth’s balance.

What can you do? Reduce how much you drive. Perhaps try carpooling or using mass transportation. Ride a bike. Buy an electric car. Tell the oil companies to go to hell. Reduce the amount of energy you use. Avoid using fossil fuel energy whenever possible. Eat less meat and reduce your water use. Those are the first steps – start there!

Sea turtle swimming in aqua water.
Photo by Olga Tsai on Unsplash.

Poaching and Illegal Trade

In some countries, turtle meat and turtle eggs are a food source; in others, turtle eggs are collected by people for income in order to feed their families. Sometimes during nesting season, hunters will watch for nesting females. Once located, they will wait until the female turtle has finished laying her eggs, then kill her for the meat and take the eggs as well.

What can you do? If you travel, don’t buy food or products that use turtle, as that supports the practice. Organizations and governments are educating tourists and local inhabitants about the endangered turtles around the world. You can help by supporting the causes that protect and monitor sea turtle nests. You can help by spreading the information and helping to educate others about the problems. Participate in eco-tourism!

Turtle Shell Trade

This relates to poaching and illegal trade but is specific in regards to products made from turtle shells, aka tortoiseshell; and is usually specific to the Hawksbill sea turtles. The Sea Turtle Conservancy indicates that “scientists estimate that hawksbill populations have declined by 90 percent during the past 100 years.” This has been outlawed by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) which is an international agreement signed by 173 governments. However, the black market demand for turtle shells is still high.

What can you do? Don’t buy items that might be made from turtle shells or other turtle parts (including skin). Of course, those products likely won’t be labeled “turtle shell” or “hawksbill shell” but if you suspect, just say no and walk away. Unfortunately, the alternative is plastic, which I am trying to eliminate from my life. So be more minimalist and don’t buy either! You’ll remember your trip or vacation without a bunch of souvenirs anyway. Here’s a handy infographic put out by Travel For Wildlife to help you avoid turtle shell products:

How to identify & avoid Hawksbill Turtle Shell infographic

They also made this very informative video, so please share it on social media with your friends and family!

You can join me in signing the pledge to avoid turtle shells with the See Turtles Organization. They, too, have wonderful resources about how to identify real turtle shell vs. fake. Again, maybe just don’t buy either – it’s not worth the risk!

Adopt-A-Sea Turtle!

You can symbolically adopt a sea turtle or a sea turtle nest. There are many of these, you’ll find many just by searching online but look for a reliable organization. Most of the programs fund education about sea turtle nests, protect nests, and/or track sea turtles.

Turtle on beach, Photo by Isabella Jusková on Unsplash
Photo by Isabella Jusková on Unsplash.

What other ideas do you have? Please feel free to leave a comment or question or idea! Thanks so much for reading. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Beachfront Lighting: Turtle Friendly Lighting Examples,”

Article, “What Can You Do to Save Sea Turtles?” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, accessed June 8, 2021.

Page, “Turtle Excluder Devices,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, accessed June 8, 2021.

Website, My Plastic Free Life.

Article, “Help Protect Sea Turtles!” See Turtles Organization, accessed June 5, 2021.

Article, “EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens,” Environmental Working Group.

Videos, Videos About Sea Turtles & More, Seaturtleweek.com, accessed June 11, 2022. Learn more about Sea Turtles!

Footnotes: