Seattle has banned the use of all plastic straws. Starbucks is phasing out plastic straws by 2020, McDonald’s is now ending their use in Ireland and the United Kingdom.
It’s estimated in the United Stated alone, 500 million disposable straws are consumed each day. And according to a recently published study, as many as 8.3 billion plastic straws annually add to the pollution of our oceans and beaches. But it’s also worth noting that plastic straws comprise only 0.025 percent of the world’s massive plastic waste stream.
In the midst of the south Pacific, there is a massive and floating ‘garbage island,’ almost a million-square miles across, larger than Mexico and visible from space. Ocean currents wash the primarily plastic debris from six of the world’s larger and more polluted rivers where they congregate in what is also one of the world’s most productive fishing and fish breeding grounds.
Discarded fishing nets are the largest source of plastic waste within this floating monstrosity. These large webs of plastic are deadly for sea turtles and larger marine mammals. Deep sea fishing is governed by international law and treaties. Fish net disposal can be better monitored and regulated. You may think a floating plastic island in the south Pacific is too remote for you to be concerned, but there is almost no way you haven’t eaten fish caught from those waters and already taken a good bite of plastic, inside the fish who breed or swim through those same tainted waters.
Personally, I only use straws for the occasionally milk shake. But for many around me, they are a daily staple of life, like napkins. The elderly, anyone with throat, swallowing or any of many diet disorders, need straws to consume liquids, and sometimes pureed fruits and proteins which they otherwise can’t ingest normally. Hospitals are among the largest daily users.
There are now glass, stainless steel and non-PET hard plastic straws available, though not inexpensive or universally accessible. However, if those straws are not regularly washed and cleaned, they become a breeding ground for germs, bacteria and many a virus.
It would seem than rather than ban a waste stream item which is proverbially spit in an ocean of trash, we should better and more largely focus on a wider swath of the entire waste stream, with multiple programs to reduce, re-use AND re-cycle.
America’s largest grocer, Kroger (which also owns Harris Teeter and Ralph’s), leading by example, will phase out the use of all plastic bags by 2025, while still offering consumers paper bags, re-useable bags for sale or boxes/other packaging brought in by the consumer.
Several large global non-profits at work attempting to remove the trash from the ocean, but scope of this environmental challenges remains monumental. Western democracies and heavy consumer nations could consider a sun-setting surcharge of say 25 cents on all canned fish products, as well as frozen foods, with those proceeds benefiting existing efforts to rid the oceans of such waste.
Another reason for the fast growing plastics glut in the U.S. is that China has stopped purchasing our plastic waste, due to its low quality and frequent taint with remaining food waste. Road asphalt, like plastic, is a petroleum based product. There are now recycling methods tested and available to melt down and re-utilize plastic waste to replace the petroleum base within asphalt. It’s also cheaper to make asphalt this way.
How about incentivizing state and local governments to bulk collect mixed plastics for pelletizing into their road paving and patching base material?
Let’s approach waste reduction with common sense and from the stand-point of re-use and innovation, versus constriction and product bans. If we can put men on the moon, as well as significantly reduce the pollution into our nation’s lakes and rivers, we CAN do this.
Before we grab the last straws out of the hands of someone battling throat cancer, or a child on the Autism spectrum who cannot normally drink from a cup...let’s use a bit more effort and common sense practices by a larger swath of our population as well as encouraging local governments and larger businesses to take on a more leading role. It will require a bit more effort from all of us to get there, but to me that makes a helluva lot more sense than banning the last straw.
Bill Crane is a senior communications strategist who began his career in broadcasting and has worked at the state capitol and in Washington in both political parties. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.