Dealing with plastic straws is not a waste of time

Dealing with plastic straws is not a waste of time

By Alex T. Vai

It’s good that people are talking about plastic straws. Cities from Seattle to Miami Beach, as well as companies like Starbucks, American Airlines, and Hilton have all publically announced plans to reduce their plastic straw use. Maybe you’ve seen the viral video of a straw being painfully extracted from a sea turtle’s nose, or reports about animals from birds to whales suffering and dying from ingesting or being entangled in plastic marine debris.

If you were intrigued or outraged enough to dig deeper, you may have learned about a growing scientific consensus that the effects of plastic pollution are reaching right down to the base of oceanic food chains, threatening to disrupt critical ecosystems upon which we all depend.

We throw away plastic straws in incredible numbers - hundreds of millions per day in the US alone. Even so, straws are still only a small fraction of the truly staggering global plastic pollution problem, which sees an average of more than 20,000 tons of plastic waste entering the ocean daily. Without changes, this figure is predicted to increase ten-fold by the year 2025.

Given the hugeness of the broader challenge, efforts to reduce straw use have increasingly been met by accusations of “feel-good environmentalism,” and assertions that this pollution source is just too insignificant to be worth addressing. Since more cynical critics have been exploiting this reasoning to suggest that nothing should be done until some mythical “complete” solution is in hand, we need to discuss why dealing with plastic straws is absolutely worth the time and energy.

Nobody claims that eliminating plastic straws is enough to save the world. Nearly every straw campaign builds from the broader context of plastic marine debris and our collective role in causing it. By starting with an everyday item, the general public has a clear path toward desperately needed behavior changes and cultural shifts in how we use and dispose of materials.

Hopefully, you recognize the mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. Ultimately, the revolutionary change we need is the universal adoption of these principles in this order. With a few exceptions, such as for those with certain physical disabilities, plastic straws are just not needed to take a drink. Consumers most often use straws simply because they are given one by default. Today, the burden of taking action against plastic pollution is squarely on those who wish to reduce by not using or to reuse by bringing their own durable straws.

Having establishments switch to “Straws Upon Request” and not providing them automatically would turn this status quo upside down. Those who need a disposable straw can still get one, but only after making a conscious choice and personal assessment of need. The cycle of thoughtless use is broken, and an opportunity is created for the facts, statistics, and images being shared about plastic pollution to positively influence decision making.

Those who criticize the focus on straws overlook the potential for small, local changes to snowball into an impactful movement. For example, plastic checkout bags are another common, disposable item having much in common with plastic straws. The fight against plastic bag pollution in Massachusetts has so far been waged town-by-town, led by local activists carrying a shared vision. The effort in, say, Aquinnah, MA (Population: 311) could easily have been dismissed as insignificant. And yet, a succession of many little victories (and a few bigger ones) over the past half-decade have added up to nearly 40% of MA residents being covered by local bag laws, an estimated 700 million fewer plastic bags per year in this state, and putting Massachusetts on the brink of strong, statewide plastic bag legislation.

Even if the path for decreasing straw use starts restaurant-by-restaurant instead, the shared truths are many and the similarities unmistakable.

The Surfrider Foundation’s work in Massachusetts has proven that there is absolutely enough energy, passion, and caring in the community to protect the ocean in multiple ways at once. Straws are just one strand in the net of disposable plastics that has entangled our society. But, as with any seemingly intractable problem, every strand we cut reveals new avenues of attack and puts us another step closer to a cleaner, healthier ocean.

We hope you enjoyed this story from Of Juliet opinion contributor Alex T. Vai. Alex is a member of the Surfrider Foundation, which recognized Juliet in 2018 as their first “Ocean Friendly Restaurant” in Massachusetts.

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