Little things such as the tongue can cause big problems. Another one of those little things that causes trouble is something you have placed your tongue on numerous times. That little thing is a plastic straw. If some activists have their way, the next plastic straw you put your tongue on will be the last (plastic) straw. Those who care about our environment are chanting, “DOWN WITH PLASTIC STRAWS!”
I confess, I’ve never given much thought to plastic straws–at least until this past weekend. As I was eating in a restaurant, I felt a strange texture in my mouth. The straw in my glass of ice tea felt weird on my tongue. Why was that? Well, it wasn’t a plastic straw; it was a paper straw. Other than the fact that the straw had a different feel on my tongue than I was used to, it was no big deal to be using a paper straw. But my encounter with the paper straw started me thinking about plastic straws and why they are being vilified by environmentalists.
What possible harm could an innocuous tube that helps us slurp sodas and suck up shakes do? Well, just one straw isn’t much of a problem. But when 500 million or so are used by Americans alone each day (per the National Park Service) and then tossed, the extent of the resulting harm may shake you up.
Plastic straws are manufactured as a single use product, i.e., it’s one use and done. The life use of a plastic straw is a matter of minutes–however long it takes you to get to the bottom of the drink it’s helping you get into your mouth. While it’s useful life is fleeting, the plastic straw sticks around as garbage for a long, long time. A discarded plastic straw will still be here WAY after you and I are gone.
Recycling plastic straws is not a viable option because their thin design makes them too small for most recycling machinery. So straws are left to decompose, but plastic has difficulty doing so. When plastic does start to break down, it releases toxic chemicals such as BPA. I’m no chemist, but I’m concerned because two of the three letters in BPA almost spell “bad.” GASP!
And where do plastic straws go to decompose–or at least attempt to decompose? Sadly, many of them end up polluting our oceans. According to the Wildlife Preservation Society, plastic straws are routinely among the top ten items most collected in beach cleanup programs. They, along with cigarette butts, must be too heavy for the average beachgoer to deliver to a waste receptacle just a few feet away.
Those plastic straws not thrown in the trash by responsible beachgoers or cleaned up during beach cleanup events, are floating in the ocean. So, what’s a few straws floating among the waves? Well, according to the World Economic Forum Report, at the current rate of accumulation, the amount of plastic in the oceans will outweigh all the fish there by 2050. Holy mackerel!
And these straws do not harmlessly float in the sea. They pose hazards to marine life who ingest them or become entangled with them. A video of a sea turtle having a straw removed from its nose went viral on the Internet. I dare you to watch the graphic video (found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw) and still feel compelled to use a plastic straw. The poor sea creature was in obvious pain because we humans simply must have a plastic tube to be able to drink our beverage of choice. Heaven forbid we simply lift a cup to our lips and drink directly from it.
So why are we using plastic straws anyway? A history lesson will explain it. The original patent for a drinking straw was filed in 1888 by Marvin Chester Stone. He was mass producing paper straws by 1890. A large scale plastic production infrastructure was in place during World War II, but once the war ended, manufacturers needed a new market for plastic. Post-war, it was actually cheaper to produce plastic straws than paper ones; the plastic straws were also more durable than paper, i.e., they wouldn’t tear when put into a to go lid. Therefore, manufacturers transitioned from arming the country for war to arming the country to drink beverages.
Now that Americans are aware of the harm to our environment caused by plastic straws, why are we still using them? Money not only makes the world go round, but it determines the type of straws we are offered. According to paper straw manufacturer Aardvark Straws, a paper straw costs a penny more than a plastic straw to produce. A penny may seem like a paltry amount, but for large corporations who use huge quantities of plastic straws, this cost adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars. The almighty dollar is more important to them than the Earth’s environment.
Fortunately, some businesses get the damage caused by plastic straws and are doing something about the problem. Starbucks, Marriott, and American Airlines are all phasing out plastic straws. Starbucks plans to have plastic straws phased out by 2020.
Governmental entities are also getting on the ban the plastic straw bandwagon. In 2018 California became the first state to enact a statewide ban on plastic straws in sit down restaurants. Customers can request a plastic straw, but they get a paper one otherwise. On January 1, 2019, a ban on the use of plastic straws in restaurants and other service businesses began in Washington, D.C. The cities of Seattle, Miami Beach, and San Francisco have plastic straw bans in place.
Don’t like the idea of a paper straw? Paper straws do have some drawbacks. Paper can dissolve, it can tear, it can be bitten through, and it may not afford the flexibility, strength, and safety that disabled users need. There are other alternatives to plastic straws such as bamboo and wood straws. Some straws are made for multiple uses, but you’d have to remember to take it with you. That may not be an option for you if you regularly misplace your car keys.
Some lifestyle changes require a drastic change in behavior. Switching to a straw of a material other than plastic is not one of them. Care about Earth? Don’t want to harm marine life? If you must choose between paper and plastic, choose PAPER. This choice may be a life or death one for sea creatures. Come on! Suck it up and ditch plastic straws!
Just WONDER-ing: Have you ever used a paper straw? Would you be willing to try one if you haven’t? Would it be that difficult for you to switch to a non-plastic straw or even drink a beverage without one?