Plastic Straws and Sea Turtles

I spent my summers in high school working as a Sea Turtle Camp Counselor for the Loggerhead Marinelife Center’s children’s camp in Jupiter, Florida.  The Loggerhead Marinelife Center is a sea turtle hospital.  There, staff work to rehabilitate injured turtles and incubate hatchlings and eggs found on dangerous areas of the beach.[1]  Injury to the turtles of Loggerhead Marinelife Center is almost always a result of human activity, but sometimes occurs due to natural predators.  Most commonly, the sea turtle patients were injured by boat strikes or fishing line entanglement.  However, I also worked with many sea turtles that suffered from indigestion due to consuming plastic, which results in constipation that can cause severe buoyancy issues for the marine mammals.  Buoyancy affects turtles’ abilities to forage for food, escape predators, and often results in increased contact with marine vessels.[2]

 

Due to this personal experience with sea turtle conservation, I was not surprised to see a 2015 video of a team of marine biologists who were filmed pulling a plastic straw out of a sea turtle’s nose.  However, I was shocked that this disturbing footage went viral.  After all, the impacts of plastic on marine life have been well known by biologists for a long time, and none of the turtles I worked with saw this kind of media attention.[3]  As a result of this one video, thousands of companies and even municipalities across America banned the use of plastic straws when they faced pressure from the general public.[4]  The biologist who recorded the viral video, Christine Figgener, compared the impact of her footage to the emotional photos of animals with plastic “six pack rings” around their necks that were widely popularized in the media about a decade ago and resulted in a massive behavior change.[5]  Figgener hoped that people would feel compelled to phase out their plastic straw usage in a similar manner.[6]  While Figgener’s video created widespread awareness of plastic pollution, the media and policy responses proved that sometimes, viral attention to a specific issue like plastic straw availability results in temporary action.[7]

 

Since Florida’s beaches are home to over 90% of America’s nesting sea turtles, the pressure to ban plastic straws was heightened in this state, and many people felt violated by the level of government interference in their choice of single-use plastics.[8]  The Florida Senate responded with SB-588, a bill which ultimately outlawed the bans on plastic straws.[9]  This bill, which was passed on March 4th, 2019, prohibits local governments from regulating plastic straw usage for 5 years, which the Florida Senate has determined is the amount of time necessary to conduct a study on their environmental impact.[10]  Senator Joe Gruters (R) explained that he decided to sign on to the bill after hearing an argument from a leader of Disability Rights Florida, Olivia Babis, who argued that some disabled citizens need accessibility to plastic straws in order to drink and eat.[11]  In her statement to the Senate committee, Babis cited Figgener’s viral sea turtle video by saying, “Nobody wants to see a turtle with a straw stuck up its nose, but we also do not want to jeopardize the health and safety for a vulnerable population either, and unfortunately, that is what is happening.”[12]  While many disabled populations rely upon straws to consume food and beverages, plastic straws are not the only solution; paper, metal, and glass straws are widely available today.

 

When responding to SB-588, I first must make note of my own bias as an environmental science student and, more importantly, a sea turtle lover.  I view this bill a major step backwards for Florida, which faces more responsibility in sea turtle conservation than any other state.  Florida’s senators had an opportunity to promote the mitigation of plastic pollution by doing nothing at all, and instead chose to actively reverse the efforts of municipal governments that wanted to ban plastic straws.[13]  While the Senate justified SB-588 with a research study on the effects of plastic straw pollution, there is an expanse of information about the danger that plastics pose to sea turtles already.  In an article entitled “What’s So Bad about Straws?” the Sea Turtle Conservancy explains that “Sea turtle hatchlings spend their formative years in sargassum seaweed mats offshore, which provide them food and protection from predators. These seaweed mats also collect microplastics, leading to the hatchlings unknowingly eating the plastic or becoming tangled in it.”[14]  Plastic straws are already thin, small plastic objects that can quickly degrade into microplastics which are abundant in these sargassum seaweed mats.  Further, this quote demonstrates that biologists are acutely aware of the effects of plastic on marine turtles already; the results of the Senate’s study will likely contribute no new information.

 

Although the Florida senate may have passed SB-588, we have the power as consumers to avoid plastic straws and support sea turtle populations.  Christine Figgener only hoped that her viral video would encourage people to avoid straws; whether or not regulations are in place, this has certainly been achieved.  Many companies across the country are already demonstrating the power of consumers by meeting the increased demand for paper straws, and some major companies such as Starbucks have implemented new cup designs that allow consumers to avoid straws completely.[15]  The Senate’s interference in municipal bans does not indicate that the fight against plastic straws is over.

 

 

 

[1] “Home,” Loggerhead Marinelife Center, accessed April 15, 2019, https://marinelife.org/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “What the Woman Who Recorded the Heartbreaking Turtle Video Wants Companies to Know About Plastic Straws,” Time, accessed April 15, 2019, http://time.com/5339037/turtle-video-plastic-straw-ban/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Policy – Sea Turtle Conservancy,” accessed April 15, 2019, https://conserveturtles.org/category/policy/.

[9] SB-588, Accessed April 15, 2019, https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2019/588/BillText/__/HTML.

[10] Ana Ceballos Florida News Service of, “Florida Senate Panel Pushes 5-Year Moratorium on Local Plastic Straw Bans,” Orlando Weekly, accessed April 15, 2019, https://www.orlandoweekly.com/Blogs/archives/2019/03/05/florida-senate-panel-pushes-5-year-moratorium-on-local-plastic-straw-bans.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Get Involved: Reducing Plastic Waste from Restaurants – Sea Turtle Conservancy,” accessed April 15, 2019, https://conserveturtles.org/get-involved-reducing-plastic-waste-from-restaurants/.

[15] “Paper Straws Are So Hot Right Now, There’s Been a Run on Supplies,” June 5, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-05/the-fight-for-paper-straws-is-getting-fierce-in-new-york-bars.

6 thoughts on “Plastic Straws and Sea Turtles

  1. It’s interesting to think about how a single video could bring such widespread attention to the presence of plastic in the ocean, something that conservationists have been trying to raise awareness of for quite some time now. You discuss how disability rights activists raised concerns over a lack of access to plastic straws, which is something I’ve come across as well—plastic seems to work better than other materials. Has there been any discussion in Florida about having plastic straws available but not given with drinks by default; if so, would people who need straws be afraid to ask for them due to stigma surrounding disabilities? Would biodegradable plastics be a working alternative for either straws or plastic packaging? I’d be interested in whether or not these considerations were taken into account in the writing of this bill

  2. I found this blog post extremely intriguing as the debate around straws increases with the movement towards paper straws. I had no prior knowledge that this bill had been passed and also as an environmental student, I seen this bill as a positive. Many companies are moving towards being straw-less, but I do have concerns about this being accessible to those who may depend on straws in order to consume their food. In which was will this bill and the movement for no straws impact society and will it have an actual impact on the usage of plastic and it’s appearance in oceans?

  3. As an environmentalist, I want to protect sea turtles as much as the next person, but I think it is important to acknowledge the concerns that people living with disabilities have when it comes to plastic straw bans. Many people require plastic straws to drink for a variety of reasons. You wrote, “While many disabled populations rely upon straws to consume food and beverages, plastic straws are not the only solution; paper, metal, and glass straws are widely available today.” However, disability rights activists have pointed out the flaws in each of those options: for example, those with limited jaw control can bite through paper straws or hurt themselves biting metal and glass straws (Danvich and Godoy, 2018). A statewide ban on plastic straw bans does seem a bit extreme to me, but I understand the sentiment.

    I think the solution is to work with vulnerable populations like those living with disabilities to find compromises that protect both people and planet. One option is to ban straws in restaurants unless requested like has been done in Oakland, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, and other cities (Ho, 2018). Another is to offer straws to customers as opposed to automatically providing them. Both of these options would limit straw consumption and change behavior. Disability rights activists would be more supportive of the second option because it does not put social stigma on those who need straws plus it would ensure that restaurants actually have them in stock, a concern that many hold if the first option is put in place. I believe that both of these options are more equitable solutions than outright plastic straw bans. These balance the needs of people and the protection of sea turtles.

    Works Cited

    Danovich, T., & Godoy, M. (2018, July 11). Why People with Disabilities want bans on Plastic Straws to be more Flexible. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/07/11/627773979/why-people-with-disabilities-want-bans-on-plastic-straws-to-be-more-flexible

    Ho, V. (2018, August 25). “People need them”: the trouble with the movement to ban plastic straws. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/aug/25/plastic-straw-ban-california-people-with-disabilities

  4. I thought this was an incredibly powerfully written piece. I too have worked with endangered sea turtle populations and have seen the effects that plastic pollution have had. I completely agree with your testament that this bill in Florida is a massive step backwards. I feel as though in this case, government officials took the criticism on the plastic straw bans and decided that the only solution is to ban them altogether. While it is true that all-out bans on plastic straws can affect disabled communities, this problem can be addressed through writing a policy that allows for straws to be given out upon request. In these policies, like one introduced in California, restaurants and other businesses aren’t allowed to give out straws or present them to customers. However, if someone has a disability and requests a straw, they are allowed to distribute. While this is an imperfect program with some loopholes, it is better than no ban at all. Additionally, in response to the criticism that people felt the government was overreaching in their choice to use single use plastic straws, I think this draws upon the greater issue of lack of education. Many people don’t know (or in reality, don’t care) about the gravity of the plastic pollution problem. If we can increase education on this issue, there would be less push-back from citizens. Overall I felt as though this was an incredibly well written piece that does help take a step forward to educate the public.

  5. This is a really interesting blog post! I had no idea about the bill that was passed in Florida. After participating in the plastic straw debate, I understand the views of the senators who supported the bill. However, I think there are many ways to not burden the disabled community while still reducing the amount of plastic trash and straws generated by the state. For example, as was suggested in the debate, plastic straw bans can have exemptions that allow the restaurant to ask if the customer would like a straw or allow the restaurant to provide the straw if it is asked. Because there have already been state and citywide plastic straw bans that implement these exemptions, I agree that it does feel like Florida is taking a step backwards in their fight for the environment. It does give me hope, however, that the outlaw of plastic straw bans is only in place for 5 years. Hopefully in that time, there can be new technologies developed that those with disabilities can use in place of the plastic straw that does not cause the same environmental problems that we are seeing. It will also provide the Florida state government with the time to see the impacts of plastic straw bans on the disabled community in other areas and potentially see that the bans do not jeopardize the community in the way they think it will.

  6. Although we are aware to a certain extent how our plastic consumption impacts the environment, the issues surrounding plastic straws has come to the forefront of this discussion and it was really interesting to read a well informed blog post about it. I thought it was very interesting how you emphasized the impact and significance of social media on this issue. Additionally, I was intrigued by the consequences of regulating plastic straws manufacturing and use on the elderly population. Although I know it may be difficult to retrieve for study, I would be interested to see statistics about the elderly population that rely on straws on a daily basis to live.

    After reading this blog post I developed a few questions concerning the specifics of the bill passed in Florida. It is my understanding that alternatives to plastic straws such as manufacturing a reusable straw from metal must be reused a certain amount of times to accumulate a an environmental benefit larger than that of a plastic straw due to the energy and materials needed to produce metal. Is there any part of the SB-588 that includes a life cycle assessment or any further analysis of environmental impact depending on straw material? Moreover, how might they be weighting different environmental issues? Is the difference in issue weight between pollution during straw production and biodiversity threats during disposal appropriate?

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