I remember very clearly the sudden anti-plastic straw wave that swept the nation. Seemingly out of nowhere, anyone who was anyone was opting not to use plastic straws.
I also remember the delicious sense of moral superiority I got every time I would hold up my hand and say, “please, no straw for me!” There I was, saving the world.
So why is the world still not… saved?
What I recall as a sudden anti-plastic straw shift was not sudden at all. The movement is believed to have originated in 2011 with Milo Cress, all of 9 years old at the time. Cress had noticed how often the plastic straws in his drinks went to waste and began to wonder how much waste was being generated nationwide by these small items. He started conducting research himself and found that across the United States, we were using about 500 million straws per day.[i] If that number is hard to grasp, envision 127 school busses filling plastic straws every day.[ii]
His project, “Be Straw Free” garnered attention from the press, the public and politicians. By 2013, Governor John Hickenlooper of Cress’s home state of Colorado had declared the first “Straw Free Day”. Environmental organizations launched their own campaigns, and in 2018, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws and utensils.[iii] This momentum also carried over to the private business sector. In May of 2018, Bon Appétit Management, announced their plan to phase out plastic straws, and larger businesses like Starbucks, American Airlines,[iv] Hyatt Hotels and Disney followed.[v] By 2019, Washington D.C.[vi] and California had banned plastic straws in their restaurants and service businesses.[vii]
Plastic straws are a worthy target of such a powerful campaign. Most plastic straws are too light to be processed through mechanical recycling sorters and end up slipping through the cracks and being discarded as garbage.[viii] When these discarded straws end up in the ocean, they do not decompose or dissolve, but instead break down into tiny pieces known as “microplastics”.[ix] These microplastics are only about the size of a sesame seed but can cause harm to birds and aquatic life who may mistake them for food.[x] About 1 million seabirds die every year from ingesting and choking on plastic straws and a 2015 study found that over half the world’s sea turtles had ingested plastic[xi] and a 2015 study found that over half the world’s sea turtles had ingested plastic.[xii] Even compostable plastic straws, thought to be more environmentally friendly, pose the same threat as these straws are designed to break down in compost facilities, not the open ocean.[xiii]
Here we are, ten years out from Milo Cress’s initial concern. From what I’ve observed, straws are far less commonplace, and understanding of their potential for harm is much more widespread. But what impact, if any, have these bans and campaigns really had?
Plastic straws only comprise 0.025% of the roughly 8 million tons of plastic that flow into the ocean each year.[xiv] Even complete elimination of plastic straws would at best make a relatively small dent in total plastic waste. While straws were one of the most commonly found items at 2017 beach cleanups, so were takeout containers, plastic bottles and cigarette butts.[xv] Meaningfully reduction of plastic waste on beaches will have to include cutting back on these items as well.
One interesting case study is the city of Hong Kong. Since 2017, the city’s annual plastic straw usage has dropped by 700 million, a 40% decrease from prior annual use. However, Hong Kong’s overall plastic waste saw a 10% increase between 2017 and 2018 alone.[xvi] This finding suggests that eliminating plastic straws alone will not curb plastic waste. In Hong Kong, the U.S. and beyond, using fewer plastic straws will have only a minimal impact if we don’t also slow mass plastic production.
Starbucks presents another case study. The drink company introduced strawless lids, or “sippy cups”. According to Dianna Cohen, CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, these new lids are made of even more plastic than the straws they replaced. Starbucks responded by stating that these lids are much larger than straws, meaning they will be able to be captured by mechanical recycling systems and can be recycled. Cohen says the key word here is “can”; it remains unclear if these lids are in fact being recycled.[xvii]
Additionally, much of the plastic in the oceans doesn’t come from consumer used straws or lids or bottles at all. A 2018 study of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of floating trash the size of Texas, found that almost half of the patch’s 79,000 metric tons of plastic, was comprised of fishing nets.[xviii] Addressing the disposal of these nets may come at a higher financial and political price than urging individual consumers to go strawless, but without it, efforts to curb plastic waste are futile.
If nothing else, the anti-plastic straw campaign can be viewed as a masterclass in building public support for an environmental initiative. Individuals across the country latched onto this issue and demanded action from their governments and businesses, and their governments and businesses responded. Support from celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Tom Brady[xix], in conjunction with graphic visuals showing what straws were doing to adorable sea creatures[xx], turned limiting straw use into both a cause and a trend. Regardless of the movement’s exact environmental impact, it can serve as a stellar example of building and channeling public support into corporate and governmental action.
“Consumers have become really upset,” says environmental scientist Roland Geyer. “They really don’t like what they are seeing, and they are determined to do something about it.”[xxi]
The support garnered by the anti-plastic straw movement is exceptional, but to truly have a powerful environmental impact, that energy must be redirected to push for larger scale changes in addressing other sources of waste. Cutting down on plastic straw use is a great first step but it alone won’t save the world.
[i] Bailey, K. (n.d.). Meet Milo, founder of Be Straw Free. Eco. https://www.ecocycle.org/bestrawfree/about.
[ii] The Anti-Plastic-Straw Phenomenon: Earth.Org – Past: Present: Future. Earth.Org – Past | Present | Future. (n.d.). https://earth.org/data_visualization/the-anti-plastic-straw-phenomenon/.
[iii] Plastic Straws: Where Are We Now?: Earth.Org – Past: Present: Future. Earth.Org – Past | Present | Future. (n.d.). https://earth.org/data_visualization/plastic-straws-where-are-we-now/.
[iv] Gibbens, S. (2021, February 10). Plastic straw bans are spreading: here’s how they took over the world. Environment. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/news-plastic-drinking-straw-history-ban.
[v] Ramey, C., & Tita, B. (2018, August 7). The Summer of Plastic-Straw Bans: How We Got There. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-summer-of-plastic-straw-bans-how-we-got-there-1533634200.
[vi] The Anti-Plastic-Straw Phenomenon: Earth.Org – Past: Present: Future. Earth.Org – Past | Present | Future. (n.d.). https://earth.org/data_visualization/the-anti-plastic-straw-phenomenon/.
[vii] Plastic Straws: Where Are We Now?: Earth.Org – Past: Present: Future. Earth.Org – Past | Present | Future. (n.d.). https://earth.org/data_visualization/plastic-straws-where-are-we-now/.
[viii] Why This Matters. For A Strawless Ocean. (n.d.). https://www.strawlessocean.org/faq.
[ix] Why This Matters. For A Strawless Ocean. (n.d.). https://www.strawlessocean.org/faq.
[x] US Department of Commerce, N. O. and A. A. (2016, April 13). What are microplastics? NOAA’s National Ocean Service. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html.
[xi] Dawn, N., Influencers of Montana National Writers Society, Chowdhury, E., Franz, M., Brennan, A., Farrell, R., . . . Lee, M. (2019, October 15). Are plastic straws really killing sea turtles? Retrieved April 05, 2021, from https://www.theodysseyonline.com/plastic-straws-killing-sea-turtles
[xii] Townsend. (2015, September 14). World’s turtles face plastic deluge danger. Retrieved April 05, 2021, from https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-09/uoq-wtf091315.php
[xiii] Why This Matters. For A Strawless Ocean. (n.d.). https://www.strawlessocean.org/faq.
[xiv]The Anti-Plastic-Straw Phenomenon: Earth.Org – Past: Present: Future. Earth.Org – Past | Present | Future. (n.d.). https://earth.org/data_visualization/the-anti-plastic-straw-phenomenon/.
[xv] Rainey, J. (2019, May 1). ‘Banning plastic straws will not be enough’: The fight to clean the oceans. NBCNews.com. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/banning-plastic-straws-will-not-be-enough-fight-clean-oceans-n951141.
[xvi] The Anti-Plastic-Straw Phenomenon: Earth.Org – Past: Present: Future. Earth.Org – Past | Present | Future. (n.d.). https://earth.org/data_visualization/the-anti-plastic-straw-phenomenon/.
[xvii]Rainey, J. (2019, May 1). ‘Banning plastic straws will not be enough’: The fight to clean the oceans. NBCNews.com.
[xviii] Parker, L. (2021, February 10). Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Bigger and Mostly Made of Fishing Gear. Science. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/great-pacific-garbage-patch-plastics-environment.
[xix] Zhao, E. (2018, July 22). The Ban on Plastic Straws: A 21st Century Environmental Movement. Medium. https://medium.com/the-climate-reporter/the-ban-on-plastic-straws-a-21st-century-environmental-movement-152d647d34c.
[xx] Rosenbaum, S. (2018, July 17). How Heartbreaking Turtle Video Sparked Plastic Straw Bans. Time. https://time.com/5339037/turtle-video-plastic-straw-ban/.
[xxi] Rainey, J. (2019, May 1). ‘Banning plastic straws will not be enough’: The fight to clean the oceans. NBCNews.com. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/banning-plastic-straws-will-not-be-enough-fight-clean-oceans-n951141.