Updated: Aug 11, 2019
There is every excuse to be extra about ditching single-use plastic straws
With 8 million tonnes of plastic estimated to be entering our oceans yearly, the plastic pollution problem is a massive ecological crisis. By 2050, our ocean will contain more plastic than fish, and microplastics are already present in the seafood we eat and in recent studies, in our bodies as well. This plastic problem we created is making a full circle back to us, and it's negative consequences are far from being fully understood.
Many countries have taken up the mantle in our fight against plastics, Scotland for example plans to ban plastic straws by end 2019 and Taiwan plans to ban all single-use plastics, including straws by 2030. Companies including Starbucks and McDonalds have also pledged to ban plastic straw by 2020. Over 270 F&B outlets in Singapore have also recently pledged to stop providing plastic straws from 1st July 2019. But is it too little too late? How effective are these bans and pledges, and will corporations and consumers truly adhere to it? Singapore alone currently uses approx 2.2m plastic straws daily, according to a 2018 report by AlphaBeta, The Final Straw and Cyan Project. And although there is much more awareness raised about the unnecessary usage of plastic straws, the change is still slow and reluctant. There are no incentives for consumers to change their habits, and targetting straws alone may very well be a distraction to the bigger plastic pollution problems we have.
It's stunning when you take a look at the numbers, approximately 8.3 billion plastic straws are now strewn along coastlines around the world. This number is absolutely ridiculous, but despite this, plastic straws are not even the most common plastic waste that exists, they only account for about 4% of marine plastic trash by piece, even less by weight. The most common plastic polluting the ocean actually comes from fishing nets, that account for at least 46% of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The reality is that we are only scratching the surface with our attention focused on straws, and ditching the straw really only makes a small dent out of the mounting plastic smog we've created in our ocean.
But instead of eating less seafood and petitioning against damaging fishing practices, we seem so much more hell bent on removing plastic straws. It may not be the more efficient way to combat the marine plastic problem, but it's understandable why we've reacted this way. Plastic straws are an easy and convenient object to remove from our lives, but diet changes are so much more difficult and people don't give things up easily. In addition, sustainably sourced fish is less available and insufficient to keep up with the growing appetites of our ballooning populations. Not to mention our asian appetite for fish, weaning people off shark's fin soup is already hard enough, now you're telling them to eat less seafood too? Definitely not what people want to hear.
Plastic straws have also received a disproportionate amount of coverage in the media, I'm pretty sure almost everyone reading this post would have seen the video of the sea turtle and the plastic straw that was released in 2015. So ditching the straw may seem like a big deal, giving us the illusion that we're actually doing something largely impactful to benefit our environment. But there is still so much more we need to do. Despite saying this, I am by no means discounting the efforts of conscientious individuals and companies saying no to plastic straws, every effort should be recognized and commended, but we should never get complacent and neither should we underestimate the scale of the environmental problems that we've created.
But then you may ask, what can we do now? My answer would be - everything we can, and more. Plastic pollution is a horribly big problem and the solutions currently available are incomplete and/or tremendously difficult to implement. Most of the current things we do now only treats the symptoms of our plastic disease but does not tackle the root cause(or causes) of it. These root causes are also complex and made up of a combination of factors that vary in different parts of the world. For example the lack of proper waste disposal and incineration systems could be a big issue for third world countries while in more affluent nations, the negligent consumeristic lifestyles may contribute more greatly to the problem. But this does not mean we should stop trying to fix it and to initiate behavioural change, we still need to make the first step and let go of plastic straws.
It is never too late to start! Here are some suggestions on how you can start taking action:
1. Assess your need for straw usage (I frequently prescribe the usage of straws when taking acidic drinks, but nowadays I remind them to avoid the plastic ones!)
2. Educate yourself about the severity of the plastics issue
3. Take personal action and skip the plastic straw when possible while opting for reusable options (eg. bamboo, glass, metal)
4. Encourage people around you, eateries and companies to support non-plastic straw options
5. Sign pledges and utilize your influence to motivate others to make the change