Straws Suck, Join No Straw November
In the scheme of your daily life, the straw you used for your iced tea at lunch probably doesn’t get much airtime. You might even have to think for a moment to remember how many straws you’ve used in the last few days. Straws are sneaky like that, because anytime you order a drink in a restaurant, or take one to-go, there’s a good chance you’ll receive a straw to go along with it.
It seems innocuous enough, unless you’ve seen the viral video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its bleeding nose. Or volunteered to help clean up a coastline, where hundreds of thousands of discarded straws are found annually.1 Or heard that, according to environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, some plastic products persist for so long, even in salty ocean water, that they’ll still be recognizable after 400 years.2
Then it begins to sink in that every piece of plastic counts. Even one straw. Especially one straw, because, if you think about it, would you even miss it if it weren’t there?
How To Take Part In ‘No Straw November’
A campaign is growing to end the use of plastic straws, which are arguably one of the easiest pieces of plastic waste to eliminate from your life. Nonetheless, doing so could have a tremendous impact worldwide. According to the Be Straw Free campaign, Americans use 500 million straws daily, which doesn’t even account for all of the straws that come attached to juice and milk cartons (including those handed out in school cafeterias).3
Sustainability coordinator for Monterey, California, Ted Terrasas said in a press release, “That’s equivalent to 175 billion straws per year, which is enough straws to wrap around the Earth 2.5 times per day!”4 It’s a staggering number for something most people don’t even need. Slowly, cities around the U.S. have taken notice, with California’s Manhattan Beach enacting a city-wide disposable plastic ban.
Others, including Berkeley, California; Miami, Florida; and New York City, as well as 1,800 restaurants, are considering bans on straws or at least have pledged to only hand them out if customers request them.5 Carmel, California is among those cities that voted to ban straws, with restaurants only being allowed to hand out biodegradable straws starting in 2018.6
The City of Monterey, California is even heading up the No Straw November campaign, which was the brainchild of high school student Shelby O’Neil, who formed Jr Ocean Guardians for her 2017 Girl Scout of America Gold Award Project, with a mission of reducing usage of single-use plastics.7 To take part, the city of Monterey suggests:8
- Tell wait staff you do not want a straw if they automatically provide one
- If you do want a straw, keep the same one if you are refilling your drink
- Help spread awareness of ways you are participating in the campaign on social media by following and sharing #NoStrawNovember
They’re also encouraging businesses and other groups who provide straws to stop doing so as a matter of course and instead hand them out only when they’re requested. Businesses are also encouraged to use compostable, biodegradable or reusable straws for those they do provide.
Increasing Realization That ‘Straws Suck’
Straws have been around for a long time, but the earliest versions were as environmentally friendly as things come, made from straw or hollow grass stalks. It wasn’t until the 1880s that a man, Marvin Stone, got the idea to make a paper straw in order to make drinking his mint julep easier. In 1937, the bendy straw was born, and this unnecessary novelty quickly became a veritable necessity. Author and environmental activist David Suzuki writes:9
“The explosion of plastic’s popularity in the 1960s and into the ’70s spelled the demise of the paper straw. After that, most drinking straw innovations were as much about marketing as function — including the twisty Krazy Straw and the wide straw-and-spoon combo used to drink slushy drinks.”
The Surfrider Foundation, an environmental nonprofit group started by a group of Malibu, California, surfers in 1984, is among those trying to get the word out about straws. In the past, Surfrider has led campaigns against discarded cigarette butts and plastic bags, and their new “Straws Suck” campaign has the same focus: clean water, healthy beaches and accessible coastlines.10
Like the “No Straw November” campaign, Surfrider’s Straws Suck is urging people to stop using straws and businesses to stop handing them out, especially without being asked.
Plastic Straws Are Not Recyclable
If you think you can justify your straw habit by throwing them in the recycling bin, think again. Most straws are not recyclable, and even if you toss it in the bin, it’s destined for the landfill — or the ocean. The Washington Post quipped that, from the recycling bin:11
“A truck will carry it [your straw] to a waste transfer station, and then another truck to a recycling facility, where it will land on a conveyor belt.
Machines will then pluck away the recyclables that surround it — first the cardboard, then the paper, the aluminum, the glass, the plastic bottles, and so on — until it ends up in a pile of items too small, too useless to be detected by the machines. This pile is known as ‘the debris,’ and you can probably guess where it’s headed. Not to some sustainability afterlife. To the landfills of America.”
It’s worth noting that more than 80 percent of the plastic debris in the ocean starts off on land. Once in the ocean, it’s known that nearly 700 species (and probably many more) are negatively impacted by such debris. Sadly, at least 17 percent of impacted species are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as near threatened or worse, and at least 10 percent of the species had ingested microplastics.12
What are microplastics? They’re what remain after your straw ends up in the ocean, and eventually gets broken down into tiny pieces less than 5 millimeters long. There are now so many of them that they’re clouding the ocean in some spots. Carried along with the ocean’s currents, swirling gyres of “plastic smog”13 now cover about 40 percent of the world’s ocean surfaces.14
Disturbingly, when microplastics exist in the ocean, they form a biological covering made of algae and other materials that smell like food to fish which, in turn, are actively seeking them out as such.15 Ingestion of microplastics by fish has been linked to intestinal blockage, physical damage, alterations in the intestines, change in behavior, change in lipid metabolism, transfer to the liver and more.16 But it doesn’t end there.
Plastic fragments have been found in sea salt.17 In the U.S., 94 percent of tap water samples were found to contain — you guessed it — plastic.18 The toxic bits are also likely accumulating on land. According to research published in Science of the Total Environment, “Annual plastic release to land is estimated at four to 23 times that released to oceans.”19 So it’s not only fish and other marine life that are ingesting plastic — you probably are too — something to think about next time you’re offered a piece of plastic you don’t really need.
Time To Ditch Single-Use Plastics
Although straws are the focus of some campaigns, they’re far from the only problem. Case in point: plastic utensils. Plastic utensils and other food and beverage packaging were recently found to make up 67 percent of the litter found in the San Francisco Bay area.20 Like straws, oftentimes plastic utensils are added to carry-out orders even if customers don’t request them.
“Even just asking customers if they need napkins, straws, and utensils before loading up their take-out bags could make a difference. Many of the straws found on the street by Clean Water Action were still in their wrappers,” Fast Company reported.21 Alternatives to plastic utensils are also widely available, with washable metal utensils representing the most obvious choice.
It’s simple to pack a fork and knife with your lunch, and there are even pocket-sized sets with carrying cases available. Meanwhile, in India one company is making edible cutlery out of rice, wheat and sorghum flour, which it states degrade in the environment within 10 days if they’re not eaten first.22
Choose Reusable Over Single-Use Products
In the U.S., it’s also crucial that we rethink our throwaway culture and become more sustainably creative. Ideally, seek to purchase products that are not made from or packaged in plastic. Another important point is to choose reusable over single-use, which is possible in most instances. For instance, opting for the following will help you to inch closer to a minimal-waste lifestyle while reducing your share of plastics pollution:
- Avoid plastic bags (including for snacks and food storage)
- Avoid disposable straws (reusable straws made from stainless steel, bamboo and even glass are widely available)
- Wash synthetic clothes less frequently and when you do use a gently cycle to reduce the number of fibers released; consider using products that catch laundry fibers in your washing machine
- Choose a nonplastic toothbrush made from bamboo, flax or even recycled dollar bills
- Avoid disposable plastic bottles; bring your own reusable bottle instead. Also bring your own mug for coffee.
- When washing out paint brushes, capture rinse water in a jar and dispose of it at your local landfill in designated spots for paint (don’t let it go down the drain). You can also make your own milk paint in lieu of plastic-based latex and acrylics — to do so “add lemon juice to skim milk and filter out the curd, add natural pigment to what is left.”23
- Request no plastic wrap on your newspaper and dry cleaning
- Avoid processed foods (which are stored in plastic bags with chemicals). Buy fresh produce instead, and forgo the plastic bags
- Opt for non-disposable razors, washable feminine hygiene products for women, cloth diapers and infant toys made of wood rather than plastic
- Store foods in glass containers or mason jars rather than plastic containers and plastic freezer bags
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Sources and References
1, 11 The Washington Post October 23, 2017
2 Ocean Conservancy, Stemming the Tide
3 Eco-Cycle, Be Straw Free Campaign FAQs
4, 8 City of Monterey, California October 20, 2017
5 The Washington Post June 24, 2017
6 KSBW8 November 2, 2017
7 Jr Ocean Guardians, No Straw November
9 Rabble.ca July 18, 2017
10 The Surfrider Foundation, Straws Suck
12 Marine Pollution Bulletin March 15, 2015
13 Huffington Post May 24, 2017
14 The Center for Biological Diversity, Plastics Pollution
15 Proceedings of the Royal Society B August 16, 2017
16 Integr Environ Assess Manag. 2017 May;13(3):510-515
17 Sci Rep. 2017 Apr 6;7:46173
18, 23 Orb, Invisibles: The Plastic Inside Us
19 Science of the Total Environment May 15, 2017
20 Mother Jones July/August 2017
21 Fast Company June 22, 2011
22 Plastics Today April 15, 2016