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.

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