It seems like everywhere you look people are quick to point out the absolute sin of plastic straws.
According to popular media, they seem to be the root of the ocean plastic epidemic.
Chances are you’ve heard about this trendy new campaign focused on reducing plastic straw usage and want to do your part for the environment. Maybe you invest in a set of fancy reusable metal straws. Maybe you avoid iced takeout drinks like the plague.
More and more restaurants and cafes are switching over to plastic straw alternatives or giving up straws altogether. Starbucks has moved to a strawless lid for its cold drinks. Local places like The Wooden Monkey did away with straws as well, offering only biodegradable straws to customers that request them.
The anti-straw movement seems like a virtuous cause that every Canadian should get behind; but is it actually helping the environment as much as we think?
A common statistic quoted by anti-straw advocates is Americans use 500 million plastic straws a day. That number was calculated from phone surveys conducted by a 9-year-old boy in 2011. There is no other research to back up the statement.
Even if it were true, plastic straws only account for 1814 metric tonnes of the 8 million metric tonnes of plastic that enter the ocean and coastlines each year. That’s about 0.023 per cent. This is insignificant compared to other types of plastic pollution. Anti-straw campaigns could actually be doing more harm than good by taking attention away from projects targeting bigger sources of ocean plastic.
The biggest source by far is abandoned commercial fishing nets, or “ghost gear.” About 46 per cent of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was determined to be made of ghost gear. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest of them all; a floating mass of garbage three times the size of France. Ghost gear packs an extra punch because the nets keep killing fish and other marine life the longer they pollute the ocean.
Why are we fixating on plastic straws when it’s clearly not going to solve the ocean plastic crisis? For one thing, media does an excellent job of sparking activism when they cover stories involving injured animals. What could get that anti-straw blood flowing more than a video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose? Surely we must ban all straws to save the turtles!
North America and Europe could recycle 100 per cent of all the plastic they consume, and it would not significantly reduce the amount of plastic released into the oceans.
20 countries were found to be responsible for 83 per cent of the world’s mismanaged plastic. What do they all have in common? None of them have waste management systems that can keep up with their rapidly expanding economies.
So, if fighting for straw bans won’t help, what will?
Implementing systems to mark commercial fishing nets so abandoned nets can be traced back to the culprit. Incentives for fishermen to recycle their nets properly. Better garbage collection in countries that need it. Pressure from the public to make it happen. Campaigns like the anti-straw movement show citizens have the power to force change. We can make a real dent in the amount of plastic entering the ocean if we fight for the right cause.
None of this means you should go out and buy a handful of plastic straws. Skipping a plastic straw is still a small, easy change you can make to your daily life that will eventually go towards reducing our society’s dependence on excess plastic. But if fighting ocean plastic is truly something you’re passionate about, consider getting involved with a campaign like The Ocean Cleanup, which is developing systems to remove plastic from the oceans.
Plastic straw bans aren’t the be all end all in plastic reduction, and they never will be. But at the very least they get people talking about the ocean plastic issue. And that’s a step towards a new wave of plastic activism that could make a big difference in cleaning our oceans.