Plastic Ocean

In August of 2015, a heart-wrenching video of a sea turtle suffering through the removal of a plastic straw from its nostrils went viral. Whether or not you have seen this video, its effects have radiated throughout communities across the globe. Many businesses have stopped offering straws, and local and national campaigns have been started to “save the sea turtles.” It is important, however, to not just look at the videos that pop up on Facebook, but to educate ourselves and others on the issue of plastic pollution and the policies in place to combat it.


The issue of plastics in the marine environment is widely recognized as a global environmental issue.[i] For decades, plastic pollution has been growing at a concerning rate, and single-use plastics (such as plastic bags, packaging, and straws) account for nearly 50 percent of this pollution.[ii] Plastic waste can be found in every corner of the world, from large populated cities to islands seemingly ‘untouched’ by humankind. Its impact on all types of organisms from zooplankton to mammals is all found to be negative.[iii] The problems brought on by plastic waste are not only due to the obvious issues such as ingestion, but also can alter ecosystem structure through the creation of new habitats for bacteria and algae. The increase in floating bacterial and algal colonies can increase the biogeographical range of these microorganisms and can therefore risk the spread of both infectious diseases and invasive species.[iv]


The issue of plastic pollution is not confined to biological and environmental impacts, but economic and social impacts as well. It is estimated that plastic pollution causes a 1-5% decline in benefits such as fisheries and aquaculture, recreational activity, and overall global wellbeing, resulting in the costs of nearly $2.5 billion per year.[v] This same study found that plastic waste can be estimated to cost nearly $33,000 per ton in reduced environmental value, and with nearly 8 million tons of plastic waste being dumped into the oceans each year, the economic and environmental impacts are vast and concerning.[vi]


To make things even worse, studies have found that despite recycling efforts, 91% of the plastic humans produce isn’t recycled, leaving it to flow into the environment.[vii] One way that so much plastic can end up not being recycled despite global efforts is through small, single-use plastics such as plastic straws.


In the United States alone, it is estimated that 500 million plastic straws are used every day.[viii] Through an analysis of trash collection from US coastlines over five years, it was found that there are approximately 7.5 million plastic straws on America’s shores.[ix] This number is nothing compared to the 437 million-8.3 billion plastic straws estimated to be along the entire world’s coastlines (this range is incredibly wide due to the difficulties involved with identifying large volumes of plastics in the marine environment).[x] These straws are not biodegradable and therefore persist in the marine environment for decades.


Plastic straws and stirrers account for only 8.1% of plastic pollution worldwide.[xi] So why are people focusing on plastic straws if other sources of plastic pollution are more widespread? The largest problem with plastic straws is their size. They are small pieces of plastic, making it difficult to recycle them. Additionally, people forget they are plastic and therefore do not think to put them in the recycling bin in the first place.[xii]


Many companies and cities have placed bans on plastic straws all across the nation and the world. The movement to get rid of plastic straws is steadily growing, and due to support from social media, has experienced a boom in recent years. Large companies like Starbucks and public figures like Queen Elizabeth II have expressed their commitment to reduce and even eliminate the use of plastic straws.[xiii]


It is not enough, however, for single companies and individuals to state their commitment. It takes local, state, and federal policies to truly affect change in terms of the volume of single-use plastics being consumed. In the US, Seattle became the first city to ban the use of plastic straws as well as plastic stir sticks and utensils.[xiv] New York City recently introduced legislation to ban straws by 2020, and San Francisco also based a proposal to ban straws and stirrers.[xv] These cities set the precedent for many more cities to do the same and take a stand against plastic pollution. Some states, like California, have even implemented state-wide plastic straw provisions in which restaurants are banned from handing out single-use plastic straws to customers unless they specifically ask for one.[xvi]


These straw bans, while widely supported, do face some criticism from people that claim that these bans ignore the needs of people living with disabilities and argue that these measures will not be able to save the oceans.[xvii]


It is argued that these bans discriminate against disabled people due to the fact that many alternatives to plastic straws are unable to substitute for plastic straws. Paper straws and other biodegradable types of plastic can cause problems for people with limited jaw control because they are able to bite through them. Metal straws conduct heat and cold and are hard and inflexible, causing them to pose safety risks. Even other types of reusable straws require washing, which not all people with disabilities can do. For these reasons, outright bans can cause problems for the disabled community. These problems can be addressed, however, through provisions, such as the California straw provision, in which straws are only available by request.[xviii]


While the complete ban of straws won’t completely solve our world’s plastic pollution problem, it is definitely a step in the right direction. Though a relatively small percent of the world’s plastic waste is being prevented through the ban of plastic straws, movements such as these are able to bring attention to the larger conversations about waste management and plastic pollution that desperately need to be had.


Works Cited

[i] Locker, Melissa. “Here are the U.S. cities that have banned plastic straws so far”. Fast Company. June 1, 2018.

[ii] Dirk Xanthos and Tony R. Walker, “International Policies to Reduce Plastic Marine Pollution from Single-use Plastics (plastic Bags and Microbeads): A Review,” Marine Pollution Bulletin 118, no. 1-2 (2017):  doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2017.02.048.

[iii] Michael Niaounakis, “Environmental, Social, and Economic Impacts,” Management of Marine Plastic Debris, 2017, , doi:10.1016/b978-0-323-44354-8.00002-1.

[iv] Niaounakis, 2017.

[v] Niaounakis, 2017.

[vi] Niaounakis, 2017.

[vii] Parker, Laura. “Here’s How much plastic trash is littering the Earth”, National Geographic, December 20, 2018.

[viii] Melissa, 2018.

[ix] Parker, 2018.

[x] Parker, 2018.

[xi] Parker, 2018.

[xii] Parker, 2018.

[xiii] Melissa, 2018.

[xiv] Parker, 2018.

[xv] Parker, 2018.

[xvi] No Author, “Why Plastic Straws Are Being Banned”, SquareUp, 2018.

[xvii] No Author, 2018.

[xviii] No Author, 2018.

8 thoughts on “Plastic Ocean

  1. The first time that I encountered any sort of regulated plastic control in real life was actually outside of the United States. In Europe I was surprised to discover that if I wanted a plastic bag to carry my groceries back home with, I would need to purchase it on top of what I was paying for my groceries. After observing for a bit, I realized that almost everyone brought backpacks or other reusable bags with them to the grocery store to carry things. I think that even with a straw on request model, it would be even more effective to require some sort of small charge for straws or plastic bags. I think this would be difficult when considering disable people who are also lower-income. I am imagining a 5 cent charge per straw. I think this would also deter individuals who are attached to straws to the point where asking for one specifically is not deterrent to them using them.

  2. Emma, very thought provoking article! This summer I participated in Duke Engage Seattle when the ban on straws took place, and it led to many discussions like these. As consumers, we are constantly given plastic straws, plastic bags, and other single use plastic items. It has been the norm for years. Yes, we can make individual life choices, and refuse the single use plastic items. However, without the education on the implications of these items on the environment, many average consumers will not make this choice because of the convenience they provide. When faced with choosing between single use plastic items and reusable ones, the economic burden in price differences is put exclusively on the consumer.

  3. This was a great post, and I was especially intrigued by the impacts of banning plastic straws on disabled citizens, a concept I had never ever thought of but clearly is a significant issue. I also think it is fascinating how specific environmental movements, like banning plastic straws, can gain significant traction and public support from seemingly unclear reasons. I wonder if there is a way to quantify how much effect the sea turtle video has had on gaining public support for the straw ban movement, as it is one of the few environmentally related videos that almost everybody knows about. Studying how the sea turtle video became so popular may help us bring attention to more important issues, such as the more general issue of plastic pollution that you brought up.

  4. I never thought about how pervasive the use of plastic is until a friend told me that she had given up single use plastic for lent. I began to become extremely aware of how almost every single product in the grocery store uses plastic in its packaging to at least some degree. In reality, the only things you are able to purchase to avoid plastic entirely are loose items that you package yourself, such as produce, salad bar goods, and other nuts and snacks from dispensers.
    It is also crazy that plastic has only been around since 1869 (I was curious and looked it up), yet now it is one of the most important materials we use for preserving food and making products. I also find it extremely interesting that you point out the other threats of plastic pollution other than the obvious environmental harm, such as the economic impacts. I actually recently visited Mexico and was happily surprised to discover that the country was very much anti-straw. Not a single restaurant or store that I went into served straws with their drinks. Even on Duke’s campus, students were recently handing out reusable metal straws and I eagerly took one for myself. For the past year or so I have been extremely conscious about denying straws, but even then you sometimes can’t avoid using one.
    After reading your blog post, I am going to try to make an even greater effort to not use straws and limit my plastic consumption where I can.

  5. Previously, I agreed with your argument that provisions to straw bans that make plastic straws available on request alleviate the problem of discrimination towards people with disabilities, however, since I adopted the view of a disability rights organization for our plastic debate, I have now realized that this is not actually a solution. Requiring people to ask for straws may force them to enclose their disability status, which is not equitable. Also, as shown through issues with Seattle’s straw ban disability exemption, not all restaurants comply with disability provisions or know that they exist. I think that these exemptions in theory sound equitable, but in practice still place a disproportionate burden on people with disabilities. While the mission of limiting plastic pollution is a worthy cause, I think a better and more equitable solution rather than an outright ban would be devoting more resources to creating a flexible straw that is both environmentally and disability friendly.

  6. This blog was incredible! I wrote my blog about sea turtle conservation and I spent a good amount of time unpacking the effects of the viral video you mentioned (team of marine biologists extracting the straw from the turtle’s nose). You mentioned Seattle and New York City’s efforts to implement bans on plastics straws, and how they set a precedent for cities to do the same. In my blog, I wrote about the Florida Senate’s recent outlaw of municipal straw bans, which has obviously been a major setback in the issue. Florida is home to over 90% of sea turtles’ nesting sites in North America, but also is home to many elderly, disabled citizens. They rely upon straws to eat and drink, and the number of restaurants who discontinued plastic straws was impacting the disabled population. Paper straws might be a good solution to this issue so that disabled people do not have to enclose their disability status, as Caroline noted. You should look into Florida SB-588, which was quietly passed and has outlawed straw bans!

  7. Great blog! I think it is extremely important that a ban on just plastic straws can have a large effect on overall attitudes towards the plastic pollution problem. It creates a cascade of change; if people can live without plastic straws, they start to realize what other small plastic items they can live without. In Maryland, as soon as a tax on plastic bags was implemented, most people realized they were unnecessary and could easily be avoided. I think the point that many people will refuse a straw when given the option is important. These policies could be implemented in many other areas to start digging into the plastic problem, because a full ban on these plastics seems to be unlikely in the near future.

  8. This is a great well-rounded post! It represents an important call to action on the issue of single-use plastics. I look forward to seeing the continued debate on plastic straws in the future. At Elmo’s Diner in Durham, they had signs posted saying it was plastic-awareness month. They only had straws available upon request. I saw no straws around me, but at other diners I would see straws in every glass. It reminded me that for most of us, we don’t need straws. Although it may inconvenience the disabled, I think this burden unfortunately is outweighed by the burden that plastic straws are placing on the environment. Because the straws by request model appears to be similarly as effective as a ban, I think we should make this a policy across the country.

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