Sipping a cool drink through a straw is a way of life. But Starbucks and a growing number of other companies and communities are saying: Not for long.
Starbucks' recent announcement that they plan to do away with single use straws is just the latest move to rid the world of one type of plastic pollution. By excluding them from their drinks, Starbucks will eliminate an estimated 1 billion straws that would otherwise be used for a matter of minutes then dropped in a bin or on the ground to make their way to landfills and or, as often happens, waterways that feed into our oceans.
One billion fewer straws! Sounds like a lot until you realize that the National Park Service estimates Americans alone use 500 million straws every day.
Others are jumping on board with eliminating straws as part of attacking the even larger problem of plastics of all types swirling around in the world’s seas. A recent article in National Geographic points out that “Ocean plastic is not as complicated as climate change. There are no ocean trash deniers, at least so far. To do something about it, we don’t have to remake our planet’s entire energy system.”
The use of plastic straws seems like a problem we can dispose of – just as people have been disposing of straws for many decades. The first straw was actually introduced before 1900, but it was paper. In the mid-1950s, when the great wave of convenient “Throwaway Living,” swept through American society and the rest of the world, plastic became the material of choice.
Who’s sorry now?
The problem with plastic is that it doesn’t go anywhere. People have tried to speculate how long it will take for the 8.8 million tons of plastic garbage added to the environment each year to disappear. According to Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor, that’s about five plastic grocery bags of plastic trash sitting on every foot of coastline around the world. Estimates of how long it will take for that plastic to completely biodegrade range from 450 years to never.
As for the plastic straw problem, companies that are working to eliminate or reduce the use of plastic straws include Hyatt, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines, Bon Appetite restaurants, Walt Disney World and Sea World; and the Smithsonian Institute. McDonalds is considering what to do with straws as part of the company’s 100% recycled pledge for the year 2025. A change.org petition is now active to try to convince Subway to stop serving straws.
Communities that have legislation in place or pending include Miami Beach and Ft. Myers in Florida; Monmouth Beach, New Jersey, and New York City; Oakland, Berkeley, San Luis Obispo, and Malibu in California; as well as Seattle, Starbuck’s hometown.
As for alternatives to plastic straws, those ideas are coming from several directions. There is the option of not using a straw, and much of the new legislation is aimed at getting fast food establishments and other restaurants to give out a straw only when requested by a customer and not as default. Along with this is the idea of having your own reusable container with its own reusable straw.
There are also alternative materials being considered for straws: paper (back to the original), bamboo, metal and even something creative like a Twizzler.
Starbucks is exploring the idea of a lid that works something like a child’s sippy cup so straws wouldn’t be necessary, yet people would still not have to be stressed by having to drink from the rim of the glass. (Our habits die hard.) One thing to keep in mind, for people who care about this type of thing, is that dermatologists tend to agree that drinking regularly from a straw purses a person’s lips and exacerbates those little lines that form around the lips as people age.
Some of the incentive may be traced back to a video that went viral about three years ago, showing a sea turtle with a straw wedged in its nose. There’s no question that discarded plastic items of all kinds are taking a major toll on marine life, and scientists now believe that minute particles of plastic are entering our food chain and threatening human health, too.
For in-depth information on the plastic problem, as well as compelling images of the magnitude of the problem all around the world, read more in this National Geographic article, “Planet or Plastic?”