What do Bacardi, Alaska Airlines and the City of Vancouver have in common? They all want you to stop using plastic straws. The bendy tubes have become a flashpoint in the global movement against plastic pollution, inspiring slogans like “straws suck” and ”the last plastic straw.”
Last month, as I watched the debate in Vancouver — the first city in Canada to enact a ban on plastic straws — I wondered how much this matters. How much impact does the focus on banning straws have in the grand scheme of things?
Not much, when you look at the issue in terms of numbers. Plastic straws are among the top 10 items cleanup volunteers gather on Canada’s shores, but they account for a tiny proportion of our plastic waste and, in Canada, we have such a strong waste management system that few make it into the environment. The big culprits for ocean plastic are regions with poor waste management in Asia, so a ban in Vancouver barely makes a dent in the problem.
But other issues are at stake. For Ali Ruddy, who leads a campaign against plastic straws in Victoria, B.C., banning straws is an important first step and conversation-starter about how our lifestyle negatively affects the environment. “The straw is a lead in to banning all single-use plastics because, often, straws are not necessary,” she tells me.
Brianne Miller, a marine biologist who runs a zero-waste grocery company in Vancouver, told me the visuals around straws — like a viral video of a sea turtle in pain because a plastic straw got stuck up its nose — also make the issue easy to communicate and have essentially turned it into a “poster child of plastic pollution.”
The commentary around straws also reminded me how central plastic is to modern life, including healthcare. For most of us, straws are a trivial convenience, but for those with disabilities and illnesses, they are an accessible way to drink.
“Plastics have facilitated a disposable lifestyle,” says Susan Freinkel, a journalist who wrote a book about plastic. “We got very hooked on the convenience of disposables and some of those are very valuable and useful, but many of them are wasteful and trivial items that are basically trash before they hit the ground. They’re basically prefab litter.”
Plastic straws, which we use and toss in a matter of minutes, are a case in point, but, beyond policies to reduce how much we use them, such as bans and levies, how can we have a bigger conversation about the system they symbolize?
57 million: The number of straws used in Canada everyday. (source: City of Vancouver)
17,654: The number of straws and stirrers volunteers for the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup found on Canada’s beaches last year
409,087: The number of straws and stirrers volunteers picked up from beaches globally last year. (source: Ocean Conservancy)
7,665: The number of search results that refer to “drinking straw” in Google’s online search engine for patents.
$2.5 million: The amount Vancouver taxpayers pay to dispose of single-use items in waste bins and clean-up litter. (source: City of Vancouver)
3,000 B.C.E.: The first-known straws are used in Ancient Sumeria, according to archaeologists, who say sumerians used straws to avoid swallowing dregs and chunks at the bottom of their beer.
1888: The modern straw, a straight contraption made of paper and paraffin, is patented by Marvin Stone. He was reportedly frustrated by the residue a natural ryegrass straw left in his mint julep, so he invented one, using a pencil to fashion the alternative with paper and glue according to the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Museum.
1937: Joseph B. Friedman is granted a patent for the bendy straw, which he first made by using a screw and dental floss to create corrugation in a straight straw. He invented it after watching his daughter struggle to drink a milkshake from a straight paper straw, according to records at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Museum.
1950s: Global plastic production takes off and more and more daily items, including straws, are made of plastic. Want to know more? Check out this brief history of the straw in bon appétit for details on everything from straws made of cereal to the the krazy straw.
As I write this, I’m surrounded by plastic, like my laptop, my keyboard, my phone, my headphones and my pen, that will ultimately be thrown out once they’re outdated and, at least some part of them, will end up in a landfill. No matter how many fewer straws or foam containers (Vancouver banned those, too) I use, my plastic waste problem seems out of control. What should we do? And what do we need to know? Please let me know by email, on Facebook or on Twitter. You might inspire my next investigation. [end]
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