Did We Help the Planet By Giving Up Plastic Straws?

In 2018 plastic straws started dominating social media feeds. Was a new cold drink taking the world by storm? Did everyone suddenly become food influencers snapping photos of their summer drinks while they were walking out of the local (or maybe chain) coffee shop? Not quite. Rather, the plastic straw became the new symbol for humanity’s negative impact on the world. Seemingly overnight, companies from airlines to cruise lines announced the phasing out of plastic straws. Cities around the world began banning single use plastic straws. Some people were asking waiters to hold the straw when they placed their drink order (with varying levels of success) and replacing it with a metal one they pulled from their bag. I was one of those people. I ordered my set of metal straws and resolved to take them with me everywhere I went. No more plastic straws for me (mostly). And that’s the story of how the banning of the plastic straw ended pollution once and for all.

Ok – not quite. Even three years ago people realized that cutting out plastic straws alone would not solve the pollution problem. Yes, plastic straws were – and still are – a problem. According to the Ocean Conservancy, they are one of the top ten items collected during their annual International Coastal Cleanup. The only problem is that leaves nine other items commonly found on ocean beaches. Other hard to recycle items like single use plastic bags, cutlery, and food packaging fill landfills and, all too often, end up in the environment.

PC: Horia Varlan CC-BY-2.0

Conservation and sustainability experts hoped that the focus on the straw would ignite the spark that led people to truly reduce their plastic waste – particularly for single use items, like straws or soda bottles, that can’t be reused easily. It was about time too. One study estimated that as of 2015, 8300 million metric tons of virgin plastic had been produced (Geyer et al. 2017). 9% of that has been recycled. An additional 12% has been incinerated, but that’s a topic for another day. Regardless, that leaves 79% of all the plastic every produced ending up in landfills or nature. In 2018, it was obvious that humanity had a bit of a plastic problem. Unfortunately, we still do.

A paper published just a few weeks ago in Frontiers in Marine Science estimated 17,600 tons of plastic flow into the Mediterranean Sea annually. This plastic can trap organisms and be mistaken for food. Over time, the bright rays from the sun break down the plastic and release potentially harmful chemicals and microplastics into the environment. They can end up everywhere. You probably have some microplastics in your body right now (Vethaak & Legler 2021).

Plastic pollution is still a major problem affecting our world. However, as someone who always strives to be an optimist, I like to think that the focus on the plastic straw a few years ago made a difference. Cities, states, and countries did more than ban plastic straws; some spots banned plastic bags and food wrapping and others even went so far as to develop a timeline for the complete elimination of single use plastics.  Companies are (slowly) feeling the pressure to reinvent their products to eliminate or reduce plastic packaging. It’s also becoming more affordable to cut out plastic. I recently found an awesome shampoo bar that works on my notoriously dry hair and arrives 100% plastic free.

Of course, the scientist in me must state that correlation does not equal causation. Yes, the movement to cut down and/or eliminate plastic has grown over the past few years. Whether that is due to the spotlight on the plastic straw or not, as far as I’m aware, has not been directly studied. There may be a lot more to do (and quickly) about the plastic problem, but we’re further along than we were three years ago. And I call that a move in the right direction.

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