Re-useable straws are all the rage at the moment. Steel and bamboo straws, which used to be a speciality item stocked in health shops, have become such a popular commodity that you can now find them at Target and Kmart. It might seem like this change came out of nowhere, but as is so often the case these days, it seems to be largely due to a viral internet video. The video showed a sea turtle having a plastic straw painfully pulled from its nostril and at the time of writing it’s had more than 32 million views.
And this video is just the tip of the iceberg – around 100,000 sea mammals die each year due to the 150 million tonnes of plastic waste in the ocean. Straws only make up a fraction of that, but many environmental activists have taken the opportunity to encourage consumers to reduce or replace plastic straws with re-usable options. With increasing legislation in Australian states and territories banning single-use plastic bags, it’s no wonder that re-usable straws have also gained momentum here, in huge chains like Woolworths and McDonalds.
But overseas as well, huge changes are being made to phase out these commonplace plastic items. Plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds will no longer be sold in Britain as part of a plan to eradicate “avoidable plastic waste” by 2042, and Prime Minister Theresa May actively called on other leaders in the Commonwealth to implement similar policies. In the US, San Francisco and Seattle have banned single-use plastic straws and Starbucks has announced that it will eliminate plastic straws from its stores (worldwide) by 2020.
Given that the US uses and discards roughly 500 million plastic straws a day – that’s enough straws to wrap around the entire Earth two and a half times! – this definitely seems like good news. Banning plastic straws and other single-use plastic items will cut down on the waste finding its way into oceans and landfills. Some of the common alternatives, like bamboo and paper straws, are biodegradable and can be thrown out or composted without any guilt over sea turtles.
But is it really going to make much difference? Estimates of how much plastic pollution comes from disposable straws vary, but most sources agree that straws are by no means the worst offenders, with plastic bottles, bags and even bottle caps generally having a much larger and more harmful impact.
So why has the movement against plastic straws been so effective? According to Dune Ives, the executive director of the Lonely Whale Foundation, plastic straws are commonplace, but generally easier to replace than plastic bottles or even plastic shopping bags. She describes them as a ‘gateway plastic’ that can help start conversations about plastic reduction and give some momentum to causes trying to cut out more pervasive plastics.
But the movement isn’t without resistance and it’s not from those who want to hang onto plastic straws for convenience. For many people with disabilities, the increasing bans pose a real problem and can even be life-threatening. NPR’s Tove K. Danovich explained why the many alternatives to single-use straws might not help a person with physical disabilities:
Thankfully, there are clauses in most of the American bans on plastic straws that encourage business owners to have plastic straws on hand for customers with disabilities or allergies, but that’s no guarantee that companies will make these accommodations. While the increasing bans on plastic straws may be good for the long-term environmental impact of plastics, the lack of suitable alternatives could add to the many ways in which life is made harder for people with disabilities.
It’s a nuanced issue. Darcy Hoover from the Natural Resources Defence Council says the key will be to avoid outright bans. We want to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean, but people who need to use plastic for health or safety reasons should have the option when they need it.
There’s yet to be any nationwide plastic bans in Australia, but more and more major companies are joining the movement and cutting out single use plastics. For the time being the choice to avoid plastic straws is still up to individual consumers, so if you don’t need a plastic straw to drink, maybe check out the stainless steel alternatives next time you’re in Target.
Image by Dean Hochman, used with permission.