Plastic Pollution: The Use of Plastic Drinking Straws

Plastic pollution is the contamination, effluence or toxic waste in the environment that harmfully affects wildlife, wildlife habitat, or humans.

It is not a secret that plastics draw on dwindling fossil fuels, leach harmful chemicals, litter landscapes, and destroy marine life. Yet, more plastic is produced and consumed each year which includes pacemakers, polyester, computers, cellphones, sneakers, water bottles, shopping bags, drinking straws, and many more. As a matter of fact plastic was produced as much in the past decade as it did in the entire twentieth century.  Furthermore, “In the next 11 years we will make as much plastic as has been made since industrial plastic production began in the 1950s.”  Needless to say that the problem with plastics in the ocean is increasing as the world made more of it.

Plastics are being used all over the world in a variety of applications mainly because of its durability, low-recycling rates, poor waste management, and maritime use. It is estimated that a significant part of the plastic produced worldwide enters and persists in marine ecosystems. This includes shoreline, seabed, water-column and sea surface environments of the world’s oceans. The release of plastics into the marine environment occurs through a variety of pathways, including river and atmospheric transport, beach littering and directly at sea via aquaculture, shipping and fishing activities.

According to a report published in 2018, about 380 million tonnes of plastic is produced worldwide each year. From the 1950s up to 2018, an estimated 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced worldwide, of which an estimated 9 percent has been recycled and another 12 percent has been incinerated. In the UK alone, more than 5 million tonnes of plastic is consumed each year, of which only an estimated one-quarter is recycled, with the rest going to landfills.

Scientists across the globe are increasingly finding wildlife that has been killed after ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic. Ninety percent of sea birds, such as, have been found to have plastic in their bellies. These plastics will not only kill more animals; they’ll decimate coral reefs, and damage human health as micro-plastics enter the food chain. They’ll create more and bigger dead zones where nothing can live, harm biodiversity, and change ecosystems. There will likely be added, unknown impacts; researchers have only been studying ocean plastics for less than two decades.

Plastic pollution is not only affecting wildlife and wildlife habitat, it is also affecting humans. For instance, there are different types of ways that plastic is dangerous for humans. Direct toxicity from plastics comes from lead, cadmium, and mercury. These toxins have also been found in many fish in the ocean, which is very dangerous for humans. Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) contained in some plastics, is a toxic carcinogen. Other toxins in plastics are directly linked to cancers, birth defects, immune system problems, and childhood developmental issues. To learn more on effects of plastics on humans visit the Ecology Center.

Between 22 and 43 percent of plastic worldwide is disposed of in landfills, where its resources are wasted, it takes up valuable space, and it blights communities. Plastic also contributes over 250,000 tons of trash (that’s about 570 fully loaded Boeing 747s) to oceans; straws and stirrers are among the top 10 marine plastic debris found during coastal cleanups. Some researchers estimate that 90 percent of each seabird, many whales and dolphins, and some sea turtles have ingested plastics, including plastic straws. Ocean plastics eventually break into smaller fragments, where they are carried up the food chain, possibly concentrating toxic chemicals in predators.

Speaking of plastic straws, the United States likely propelled the use of disposable straws. In the early 1900s, when polio and tuberculosis were rampant in the country and people became increasingly afraid of contagious disease from shared glasses, soda fountains began offering drinking straws to prevent contact with the glass.

Currently, the world sips through 1 billion straws a day. Between the US, UK, and Canada people get through over 607 million plastic drinking straws every 24 hours…and these straws don’t decompose for a very long time.

Here is a fact, Americans use a mind-boggling 500 million single-use straws a day, according to manufacturers, and that figure doesn’t include the little straws that come packaged with juice-boxes and similar containers. Laid end to end, they’d circle the earth almost two and a half times. That’s 180 billion straws used each year in the United States – most of them used for just a few minutes and then discarded – 34 thousand tons of plastic used once and thrown away each year.

In spite of the momentous use, plastic straws rarely come out as a major problem in global discussions of environmental destruction, maybe due to their small size. The production cost of straws is low, enabling their mass production. In many countries, straws are offered freely after purchasing soft drinks. Plastic straws are one of the most used plastics, and resultant among the worst pollutants in the world. The easy availability of plastic straws has become the straw’s main undoing, as people dispose of used straws in the knowledge that obtaining another straw is almost free and within arm’s reach.

There are two major problems associated with making more plastic drinking straws:

  1. More plastic means that we need more oil and gas extraction and more electricity to power the plastic production. Then, of course, we need more gas to ship materials from plastic manufacturers to straw makers, more electricity to power straw-making machines, and more gas to deliver straws to customers. Ultimately, that means we end up with more carbon emissions and pollution from these industrial processes and transport; and
  2. There is also a problem on the disposal end, nearly every piece of plastic ever made, regardless of whether it has been recycled, or still exists. While polypropylene is a versatile plastic, straws are small and hard to pick out when workers sift through recycling, meaning they are rarely recovered.

It is acknowledged that plastic straws are dangerous to wildlife. Due to their small size, straws are often mistaken for food by animals and because of the cylindrical shapes of straws, can cause suffocation and death to the animal. Here are some facts:

  1. Plastic straws are the 11th most found ocean trash;
  2. It takes up to 200 years for a plastic straw to decompose and they cannot be recycled in most places; and
  3. Each year, 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die from ingesting plastic.

In addition to massive environmental consequences, plastic straws also have negative impacts on human health. Christy Brissette, an RD and nutrition writer, shined a light on negative impacts of plastic straws on human health:

  1. Drinking through a straw can cause more air to enter the digestive system, increasing the likelihood that you’ll experience gas and bloating from whatever you’re drinking; and
  2. There is an increased risk for cavities (because straws tend to send sugary and acidic beverages to certain teeth) and even wrinkles—as the regular use of straws can lead to “pucker lines,” or the same types of wrinkles that smokers get around their mouths.

According to Brissette, the chemicals plastic straws are made from should also be cause for some concern. It’s suspected that one in particular, polypropylene, can leach into water and might affect estrogen levels in humans.

Most straws today are made from a plastic called polypropylene, made from petroleum. Colorants, plasticizers (which make the plastic more flexible), antioxidants (which cut the interactions between oxygen and the plastic), and ultraviolet light filters (which shield the plastic from solar radiation) are added. Straws are then individually wrapped in sleeves or bulk-packed in plastic or cardboard containers.

Perhaps the most effective way of dealing with the environmental pollution caused by plastic straws is the reuse, recycling, or instituting a ban on the use of plastic straws. Being plastics, the straws can be molded into new items. Many organizations around the world convert used straws into new commodities. In Africa, local communities collect used plastic straws and use them to make mats and bags.

Another remedy for environmental pollution caused by plastic straws is placing a ban on their production and use. Activists around the world are lobbying governments to ban plastic straws to save the environment. A few countries in the world such as Rwanda, Macedonia, China, Kenya and the state of California have already banned the use of plastic bags and are expected to expand the ban also to include plastic straws and bottles. Users are also encouraged to boycott the use of the plastic straws is seen unnecessary. As expected, such measures face stiff opposition from straw manufacturers who claim that the environmental effects caused by plastic straws are often exaggerated.

Britain plans to ban the sale of plastic straws and is pressing other Commonwealth countries, such as Canada, to join. British Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to eradicate plastic waste by 2042 as part of a “National Plan of action.”

Theresa May said in a statement ahead of a Commonwealth summit:

  • “Plastic waste is one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world, which is why protecting the marine environment is central to our agenda at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting.”

Leaders from the Commonwealth — a network of 53 countries, mostly former British colonies — were meeting in London. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also there and he was asked if he would join Britain in the ban. Trudeau skirted the question, but did say he will: “talk about this with the G7 nations and look at the solutions.”

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau demurred on May’s call for immediate action, his government seems to accept the line that straws and other plastic utensils are a ‘scourge on our seas.’ A few days later Catherine McKenna, Federal Environment Minister, unveiled a public consultation on marine litter with the stated ultimate goal of “zero plastic waste.” According to McKenna “plastic products are polluting our oceans and waterways—not just in Canada but around the world.”

In Canada, more and more Canadian consumers, businesses and institutions are announcing their own voluntary restrictions on disposable straws, including many bars in Toronto, restaurants in Prince Edward Island and the University of Guelph. In Toronto, The Last Straw campaign has signed up more than 125 restaurants and bars to voluntarily avoid offering straws on Saturday, the day before Earth Day.

Vancouver will become the first major Canadian city to ban plastic drinking straws, as it reduces its reliance on disposable single-use items that end up in landfills or incinerators.

According to the City of Vancouver, approximately 57 million straws are used in Canada every day and 2.6 million disposable cups are thrown away in Vancouver every week.

The straw ban, which takes effect in the fall of next year, is part of a suite of waste-reducing policies adopted this week that also includes a ban on the distribution of polystyrene foam cups and containers, as well as restrictions on disposable cups and plastic shopping bags. According to the policy passed unanimously at city council on Wednesday, the city aims to eliminate completely the disposal of solid waste by 2040.

The city’s ban on plastic drinking straws, foam cups and foam take-out containers will apply to restaurants and vendors with city business licences. The city is still working out details for enforcement and is considering a recommendation to punish offenders with a $250 ticket through complaints and spot-checks.

The war on plastic straws is growing as more companies such as McDonald’s and cities such as New York are facing pressure to find sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives that won’t pollute our oceans, litter our beaches or wind up harming animals.

A lot of the time, straws are unnecessary and you can drink right out of a cup. Lids designed for a straw make this a little harder (iced coffee lids, for example), but brands can develop lids that don’t need straws. Starbucks, for instance, recently tested out an “adult sippy cup” for its iced coffee and it works just as well as a straw.

While reusable water bottles and cups with reusable straws and lids are an easy way to avoid using plastic straws, perhaps going back to drinking directly from a cup or glass, is not such a bizarre idea either.

At the same time, there is a need to recognize that many people with disabilities, as well as some children and the elderly folks do need straws on a daily basis. Probably single-use plastic straws may be the best option available to people with certain disabilities. Nevertheless, there are alternatives to single-use plastic straws: metal straws, bamboo straws, glass straws, paper straws and silicone straws. Perhaps these folks should determine the suitability of those straws for their use to replace plastic straws.

The bottom line is, besides the fact that by the year 2050 the plastic in our oceans will outweigh the fish; this should serve as some added motivation to say no to plastic straws and replace them with more sustainable alternatives.

RESOURCES:

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