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How much do plastic straws affect the environment?

Lifestyle & Opinion

By Callie Nicholl

In recent news, the issue of plastic waste has been the center of attention. Images of shorelines littered with plastic bags and animals eating similar waste products are circulating, capturing the hearts of concerned citizens. Communities of people are petitioning for plastic straws to be banned from restaurants across the globe. But what is the true environmental impact of plastic straws?

Starting in 2011 with Milo Cress, a nine-year-old with a passion for conservation, the Be Straw Free campaign was set in motion. The young Cress’ research provided him with some 500 million straws used daily – a number commonly misused by major media companies, including National Geographic. Young Cress came to the 500 million number by contacting straw manufacturers for an estimated number of straws used annually, and he then divided that number by 365. The inaccuracy of this statistic raises the question of how accurate the entire argument against plastic straws is.

Based on a statistic from Bloomberg News, it is estimated that plastic straws and stirrers make up a surprisingly low 0.03% of contaminated ocean water. Considering Cress’ sizable estimation of 500 million straws used a day compared to the low percentage of straws presently in the ocean, what is the actual environmental impact of plastic straws?

Currently, there is no exact number of straws that have killed marine life. According to “Why the Anti-Straw Crusaders Are Critically Misinformed,” the occurrence is so rare that it is impossible to get an accurate number. In fact, the only recorded case of a plastic straw immediately affecting a sea turtle is from a viral video showing a straw stuck in the animal’s nose. Although the incident was terrible, it has been and still is, an extraordinarily uncommon occurrence.

Some argue that plastic straws should be the least of our worries. As of 2019, Cress made the claim that banning all straws is not the answer. Instead, Cress and his supporters call for a more serious examination to be placed on all single-use plastic items – whether they’re plastic bags, Solo cups, plastic bottles, or others.

When it comes down to it, the anti-straw campaign isn’t really about straws. Dune Ives, executive director of Lonely Whale and strong supporter of Seattle’s city-wide straw ban, said that the movement is more so, “… about pointing out how prevalent single-use plastics are in our lives.”

While the plastic straw issue may be less significant than previously thought, our oceans are still at risk. In 2010, an estimation of eight million tons was added to the ocean that year. A study from 2015 estimates 9.1 million tons of plastic had been added to the ocean that year. The same study suggests the cumulative amount of plastic in the ocean will reach 155 million tons in 2025. Even though new studies predict that number to shrink over time, the amount of waste in our oceans and in the environment is quite substantial. Plus, the current waste isn’t being removed, meaning the ‘smaller’ amount of plastic is only adding to an already existing pile. So, what are our solutions to this growing issue?

Companies like Starbucks and Bon Appetit Management Company have vowed to make the switch from plastic straws to a more ‘green’ solution. Starbucks replaced its plastic straws with a recyclable sippy cup lid – which is also plastic. Still, these companies also have the option to ditch plastic altogether and use paper straws for their drinks.

Paper straws take a significantly smaller amount of time to break down in nature than plastic straws. A study by 5 Gyres suggested paper straws are able to break down completely within six months, while other projections estimate plastic items to take up to 500 years to break down and decompose. Although paper straws have the upper hand when observing their effect on wildlife, some companies are unwilling to make the switch from plastic straws.

The cost of manufacturing paper straws is notably higher than that of plastic. Adam Merran, CEO of PacknWood, a food service products company, said that the average paper straw will cost around two and a half cents, while plastic straws are only a half-cent. Although the price is low as is, the small difference may be enough to turn companies away from the substitute.

Furthermore, the nature of a paper product is that they are not made to withstand the elements. After exposed to water for a certain period of time, the straw will begin to deteriorate and first become uncomfortable to drink from, and then completely unusable. This may prompt customers to use multiple straws for one drink, meaning increased production of straws. Even if paper straws are truly less harmful to the environment than plastic ones, manufacturing more paper products does not improve the state of the issue. On top of that, producing paper products tends to create more air pollution than the production of plastic products.

Even still, additional materials have been utilized to replace plastic straws. People now come equipped with glass, straw, bamboo, and stainless-steel straws to enjoy their drinks. Better yet, some opt for using no straw at all. It can be difficult to compare each material to the next to determine which is more environmentally harmful, but using no straw is certainly the most convenient option.

Additionally, a recent study from Newcastle University in Tyne, UK also concluded that washing clothes is contributing to the plastic problem. The delicate wash cycle available in most washing machines produces an average of 800,000 more microfibers than other washing cycles. This cycle is set apart from the standard washing cycles due to its specific speed and frequent change in the spinning direction. While washing the clothing, the machine strips plastic microfibers from clothes, which remains in the excess water. These plastic microfibers are then drained back into the environment, eventually winding up in our oceans.

Even if the entire country agreed to ban all plastic straws, only a miniature portion of the issue would be resolved. Excluding the 0.03% of pollution plastic straws and stirrers make up, there is still a significant amount of waste in our environment, originating from just about everything we do. From washing clothes to having a cup of coffee, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid polluting our world in normal, everyday actions.

Whether banning plastic straws will truly make a difference or not, it’s clear that the plastic pollution problem is worsening over time. Some call for additional plastic substitutes to be discovered and manufactured, while others suggest volunteering for beach clean-ups. On both sides of the argument, pro-straw and anti-straw activists usually have a similar goal: to protect our planet from further plastic pollution.


Resources

Bailey, Kate. “Meet Milo, Founder of Be Straw Free.” Eco, Eco-Cycle, 2016, https://www.ecocycle.org/bestrawfree/about.  

Baum, Jordan. “Plastic Straws vs Paper Straws: Should Your Business Switch to Paper?” EBP Supply, 23 May 2019, https://www.ebpsupply.com/blog/plastic-straws-vs-paper-straws.

Gardner, Ben. “Why the Anti-Straw Crusaders Are Critically Misinformed.” UWIRE Text, 7 Feb. 2019, p. 1. Gale Academic Onefile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A572883617/AONE?u=lincclin_spjc&sid=AONE&xid=43db4f8e.

Ell, Kellie. “Paper Straws Cost ‘Maybe 10 Times’ More than Plastic Straws, Says Paper Straw Distributor.” CNBC, 10 July 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/07/09/paper-straws-are-better-for-the-environment-but-they-will-cost-you.html.

Koonin, Amy. “Are Paper Straws Really Better for the Environment?” Commercial Garbage & Waste Management Company | Rubicon Global, 10 Dec. 2018, https://www.rubiconglobal.com/blog-paper-straws-better-environment/.

Post Editorial Board. “Banning Plastic Straws Is More Scam than Science.” New York Post, New York Post, 3 July 2018, https://nypost.com/2018/07/02/banning-plastic-straws-is-more-scam-than-science/.

Roston, Brittany A. “Delicate Wash Cycles Are Spewing Microfibers into the Environment.” SlashGear, SlashGear, 28 Sept. 2019, https://www.slashgear.com/delicate-wash-cycles-are-spewing-microfibers-into-the-environment-28593275/.

Sifferlin, Alexandra. “Here’s How Much Plastic Ends Up In the World’s Oceans.” Time, Military & Government Collection, Feb. 13AD, https://time.com/3707112/plastic-in-the-ocean/.

Header image from SmokeSignals.

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