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. 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.
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. 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. 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. Figgener hoped that people would feel compelled to phase out their plastic straw usage in a similar manner. 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.
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. The Florida Senate responded with SB-588, a bill which ultimately outlawed the bans on plastic straws. 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. 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. 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.” 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. 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.” 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. The Senate’s interference in municipal bans does not indicate that the fight against plastic straws is over.
 “Home,” Loggerhead Marinelife Center, accessed April 15, 2019, https://marinelife.org/.
 “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/.
 “Policy – Sea Turtle Conservancy,” accessed April 15, 2019, https://conserveturtles.org/category/policy/.
 SB-588, Accessed April 15, 2019, https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2019/588/BillText/__/HTML.
 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.
 “Get Involved: Reducing Plastic Waste from Restaurants – Sea Turtle Conservancy,” accessed April 15, 2019, https://conserveturtles.org/get-involved-reducing-plastic-waste-from-restaurants/.
 “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.