Let’s start with some statistics:
8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s. This number grows exponentially every year (1).
For some perspective, plastic production since the 1950s equates to (7):
822,000 Eiffel Towers
25,000 Empire State Buildings
1 billion elephants
By 2050, they estimate that 12 billion metric tons of plastic will have been produced.
Of the 8.3 billion, 76% of it has already gone to waste. Since plastic does not naturally degrade, this means is has been incinerated, poured into landfills, or dumped. (Dumped typically means it goes into the ocean) (3).
Global, 32% of the annual plastic production ends up in the oceans. To put this into perspective, this equates to pouring one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute. This number is only projected to increase at the rate we are going (4).
Every second in the US, 1500 water bottles are consumed (2).
Australian scientists Denise Hardesty and Christ Wilcox estimate that 7.5 million plastic straws are lying around America’s shoreline (5).
According to the Sea turtle Conservatory, 100 million marine animals are killed each year due to plastic debris in the ocean (6).
Last factoid: plastic doesn’t really “break down” or “decompose”… it just breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces. This actually makes it more damaging.
I don’t believe statistics should be used to fear monger, but I think they should be used to spread awareness, empower, and create a sense of urgency and responsibility in us all.
I was talking with someone the other day and the plastic conversation came up. Here in St Petersburg, Florida, the “no straw please” global campaign has taken root and has spread through the community like wildfire. As a result, you see more and more people pulling out their reusable, metal straws and more restaurants only offering them upon request.
The friend I was talking to said, “Well I’m not throwing my plastic straw into the ocean, so I don’t see how it matters”.
Touché. But also, let’s dig into this a little more. Can this movement and the simple action of refusing a straw really make a difference?
These are my own personal thoughts on the matter. A list of potential, systemic benefits I see of the “no straw, please” movement.
1. It connects actions with consequences. Contrary to popular belief, throwing trash in the garbage (or even the recycling) does not make it go away and disappear for the earth. It doesn’t even ensure that it gets to the landfill or recycling centers. Heck, humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic since the 1950s, do we really believe that all of the discarded plastic has conveniently ended up where it is “suppose” to be (landfills) and not in our environments? That would be foolish. There is SO much trash to manage and therefore, there are flaws in our waste management systems and the garbage disposal process.
But, just because we don’t intend for our trash to end up in the environment, does not mean it absorbs us from all responsibility.
Every time we use a plastic straw (or single usage plastic of any sort), we run the risk of that item ending up somewhere where it can cause damage or harm, albeit unintended.
The plastic straw moment has brought attention to this. The concept alone has empowered us all take responsibility for our actions and with one single choice, taken partial ownership as stewards of the environment.
That brings me to my next thought…
2. It’s a starting point. For many people, the potential negative consequences of straw usage wasn’t even a thought prior to this movement. The “no straw, please” campaign sparks a movement and a conversation within each of us individually. A call to action within our own lives. If we can make a difference by merely refusing plastic straws… what else can we do to make a difference? Perhaps take our own reusable cup to the coffee shop? Take reusable bags to the grocery store? Shop at farmer’s markets? Buy fruits and vegetables that are not wrapped in plastic. As consumers, we vote with our dollar and we make a difference with our decisions.
In a culture that can be so disconnected with the environment and is addicted to connivence, plastic straw usage gives us an easy and manageable place to start. Trying to tackle and remedy every “unsustainable” part of our lives at once would be overwhelming for anyone. And not just overwhelming- impossible and unnecessary. “Going green” is not a destination- it’s a process. It is important to start slowly. Straws make starting our individual journeys easy, manage, and rewarding.
3. Being part of a community movement is rewarding. Some people may roll their eyes and think that the “no straw, please” movement is just a trend. They might feel that people are just “jumping on the bandwagon”. Well, this might be true… but that is the point in a lot of ways. Being a part of a communal movement is empowering, fun, and rewarding for everyone. We all instinctually want to be part of our tribe. We want to play a role and be a part of something bigger by contributing to the greater good. Grass-root campaigns help to grab people into the sustainability movement who otherwise, would never have even glanced this way.
4. It starts a conversation. Yea, we all know that banning plastic straws is not going to save the planet. It is not going to reverse climate change or save all the sea turtles. But it starts the conversation by getting people to ask questions. What is the hype around plastic straws? Why is their usage being discouraged? The answers to these question provide AWARENESS around issues that are astronomical in size and cannot be tackled by activist and non-profits alone. These issues requires us ALL to be participants.
This movement is just as much about education and awareness, as it is about the environmental benefits themselves. The biggest missing piece in individual environmental mindfulness is…. education. People can’t make informed decisions if they are not informed.
5. The animals. My final point is just an example of why straws themselves, can be devastating. They can be devastating to the creatures who comes across them. That matters to me. Online, you can find countless videos of straws being removed from animal noses, and stomaches. Due to their small size, straws are often mistaken for food by animals and because of their cylindrical shape, straws can cause suffocation and death to the animal. This weighs heavily on my heart and is enough reason alone for me to quit straws.
As my last point, I want to say- I am not ignorant or an extremists and I recognize that straws are often needed in certain situations - such as for the disabled. In this case- by all means, let’s use a straw! But let’s re-thing straw usage when it is out of habit and convince alone.
Let’s be empowered, one “no straw, please” at a time and let’s allow this momentum to propel us to more environmentally conscious lives!