In July of 2018, Starbucks announced that they would eliminate plastic straws from the inventory of their 28,000 stores by 2020. This declaration came after several major cities, Vancouver and Seattle being among them, legally banned the use of plastic straws and utensils in restaurants. Instead of using disposable, plastic straws, Starbucks customers would use a recyclable strawless lid for their drinks, with paper straws still available upon request. For a lot of environmental activists, this push for anti-straw legislation and business practices was a massive success and the culmination of years of anti-plastic activism.
The plastic straw revolution really took off in August of 2015, when Marine Biologist Christine Figgener posted a video showing her colleagues removing a plastic straw from a turtle’s bleeding nasal cavity. The video went viral, and soon after people all over the Internet were condemning the use of plastic straws and encouraging others to do the same. Companies like Starbucks, American Airlines, McDonald's, and even Marriot International, who were already facing increased pressure to make their products more sustainable, saw an opportunity to boost their PR and joined the movement, opting for paper straws or only giving customers plastic straws upon request. Suddenly, corporate bosses and politicians worldwide were recognizing the damage that plastics could have on the environment, and humans were finally redeeming themselves for the 8 million tons of plastic waste that wind up in the ocean annually. Real change was finally being enacted.
As it turns out, though, the global straw bans were having less of an impact than people expected. Plastic straws only account for 0.025% of the ocean’s 8 millions tons of plastic pollution, and banning them wouldn’t even come close to solving the plastic pandemic that’s suffocating our marine environments. Many people, including Steve Russell, the Vice President of plastics for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), claim that we must look beyond plastic straws and ban all single-use plastics (including plastic bags and bottles) and help develop better waste management practices in countries that desperately need it. In fact, the five countries responsible for 60% of ocean plastics are China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka, all countries experiencing rapid economic growth without the waste management infrastructure able to handle the large amount of plastics they are consuming. Even when we look at the specific kinds of ocean pollution, the majority of plastics found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (the world’s largest collection of floating trash) was actually composed of abandoned fishing gear. Putting further regulations on the fishing industry and making sure that large fisheries are held responsible for their lost equipment could have resounding effects on our total ocean plastics way greater than any straw ban could ever accomplish.
Obviously, pessimism aside, banning straws is a step in the right direction. The whole movement demonstrates that, when people actually unite in their activism, large-scale change can happen. However, we must stay vigilant and continue to put pressure on companies and lawmakers to maintain the standards of clean, recyclable, reusable production, and not just whine about straws. In a foreboding example, it turns out that the new Starbucks’ strawless lids use more plastic by weight than the straw and lid combo that they provided before. Starbucks claims that their strawless lids are made of a more recyclable material than their predecessor, but their increase in weight combined with poor recycling infrastructure could mean even more plastics end up in the water as a result of their anti-straw resolution.
Poor activism leads to poor reform. If we allow only straws to be the focus of our protests, the oceans will never be clean. Hopefully, we’ll use the momentum gained in the anti-straw movement to focus on some of the larger conflicts impacting marine pollution, like poor waste management and improper fishing practices. Changes in these fields are going to be extremely difficult to execute, and it’ll take more than posting some hashtags on social media to get them done. Use some reusable bags at the grocery store, make sure you are fully aware of your city’s recycling practices, vote for more green, eco-conscious policies and politicians, and participate in your local climate rallies. Those turtles need you!