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Let’s talk trash for a moment: think about the last time you ordered a smoothie from your favorite juicery or picked up your morning iced coffee. Now, think about what you did after you finished your drink; chances are you threw everything — your cup, lid, and straw — in the trash. Or perhaps you thought, since it’s plastic, it could be be recycled. However, according to a recent global analysis on the effects of plastic pollution, a whopping 91% of all discarded plastic never actually gets recycled. For straws, it’s often due to their size. As a result, a majority of all plastic will end up in landfills or, more likely, the ocean.
“Plastic does not disappear. It does not go away,” Nicholas Mallos, program director for Trash Free Seas at the Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit environmental advocacy and research organization, tells us. “And the same qualities that make it so useful in our everyday life — it’s cheap, it’s strong, it’s light — make them just as hard to break down.”
Breaking Down Plastic: What (Really) Happens After You Throw it Out?
“There are so many different kinds of plastic, all made from different chemicals and called by different names,” explains Dianna Cohen, co-founder and CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. “Often times, people use plastic and, because they don’t know if it can be recycled, won’t recycle it. Plus, if some plastics — like food containers — are soiled, they can’t be recycled.” (That's right, you have to rinse out your plastic containers before recycling them!)
For instance, some plastic items like beverage bottles are made out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and can usually be recycled into new bottles. Meanwhile, plastic cling wrap, made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) often cannot be recycled with the rest of your curbside plastics. Fortunately, many states like California, New York, and Texas have many retailers that will take back these hard-to-recycle plastics as long as they are clean and dry (find out if your state has a retailer here!) For something like a plastic straw, which is made from polypropylene (PP) — also found in disposable diapers, baby bottles, and tubs like yogurt containers — its chemical composition comes in so many grades and types that it’s often difficult to properly sort and recycle. As a result, Cohen says a lot of plastic will end up in landfills. Because many landfills are built on or near oceans, trash will easily and often begin to overflow.
Factor in threats like illegal dumping and street litter washing away into drains, and each year you have more than 8 million tons of plastic ending up in the oceans. Mallos puts this number into perspective: “That’s a full New York City dump truck’s worth of plastic entering the ocean every minute of every day for a year.”
The Lifecycle of a Plastic Straw
As director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program, which hosts annual international coastal clean-ups, Mallos says straws are among the top ten items found on beaches. During last year’s cleanup event, volunteers picked up 125,973 straws on American beaches alone. That’s enough straws to stretch 78,445 meters — or 145 of New York City’s One World Trade Centers stacked one on top of the other. And while he admits clean-up’s do help, it’s also crucial that we look at the source of the problem: why are we using so many straws to begin with?
In the United States alone, every day we use — and toss out — more than 500 million straws. Many of us take one to drink with out of habit, or will automatically receive one when dining out. However, in many cases, with the exception of medical circumstances, straws are not required to sip your favorite drink.
If it does find its way into the ocean, straws are often mistaken by marine life for food and because of the sea’s waves, wind, and heat from the sun, the straw will eventually break down into smaller and smaller plastic fragments.
This may seem like a good thing, says Mallos, but it is quite the opposite. “Consider a full-sized, intact, straw. There are only so many animals that would be able to ingest it because of its size,” he explains. “But as this straw begins to break down into say, 500 smaller pieces, the number of animals that can mistakenly ingest plastic gets higher and higher. This is how plastic first enters the food chain. And we, as humans, are at the top.”
According to the United Nations, approximately 800 species of marine wildlife have been affected by plastic in the ocean. With the rate at which we are disposing of plastic pollution — especially single-use items like straws — by 2050, the oceans will be home to more plastic than fish.
Searching for Sustainable Solutions: Small Changes, Big Impacts
“When it comes to plastic products, we’ve been sold on the idea of convenience and the fact that it’s cheap,” Cohen tells us. “But if something like a single plastic straw cannot be recycled, and its impact on the environment, animals, and our health is not really cheap at all — is it really convenient?” With a third of all plastic products being single-use (non-recyclable) items, like straws, Cohen says part of the solution is reframing our mindset. While we wait for hemp to become the new eco-friendlier alternative to plastic, try reconsidering the 3 R’s — Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling — with a fourth: Refuse.
“The next time you’re out a restaurant, try requesting no plastic straw,” she says. “But you have to do it right away, before you even order a beverage and even with water.” Sometimes, she says the request will spark a conversation with her server. Some may mention the graphic video that went viral last summer about an injured turtle that had ingested a straw, or that their restaurant is even in the process of trying to phase out straws. Currently, 1,800 restaurants, organizations, and schools worldwide, including across cities like Miami, Los Angeles, New York, and D.C, have either implemented a straws-by-request-only rule or gotten rid of them altogether. (The Last Plastic Straw, a Plastic Pollution Coalition project, has been mapping these straw-free businesses here!)
If you love simply love sipping with a straw, Cohen says consider investing in one that you can reuse, whether it’s stainless steel or bamboo. By supporting these companies, you are also sending them a message that plastic-alternatives are in demand. At the end of the day, it boils down to choosing to be sustainable when you find the chance, even if it means vowing to skip the straw for a single week or a whole month.
While saying no to plastic straws once or twice may not seem like much, Mallos says to remember that one action taken collectively can have a real measurable impact. In other words, saying no to one straw may seem meager, but imagine if 100, 1000, or even 1 million other people refused a straw that same week? “This is not an ocean problem. It’s a people problem,” says Mallos. “We make the material, and we consume it. We can fix it.”