Many communities have passed bans on single-use plastic bags, but there are plenty of single-use plastic items that are still in use including plastic straws. As John Metcalfe writes in Atlantic Cities, we toss out a shockingly high mountain of straws on a daily basis.
In London, environmentalists have started Straw Wars, a campaign to eliminate straws in the city’s Soho district. Businesses can sign up to forego handing out straws to customers unless one is requested; at least 30 bars and clubs have joined the effort. According to the Straw Wars site, just in the UK, an average 3.5 million McDonalds customers per day buy a drink, with a straw. So that’s 3.5 million straws that are discarded, just on one day.
A February article in the Guardian notes that “there are no figures for the proportion that plastic straws make up as a proportion of total plastic waste” and the number is thought to be small. But straws, due to their size and form, can make their way down drains and into rivers and oceans, where they can have adverse effects on marine life. Emma Snowden, litter campaigns officer with the Marine Conservation Society, notes that straws are often found on beaches and in the water and contribute to the waste in the ocean, 60 percent of which is plastic. Due to the habit of passing out straws when a customer buys a drink, some of the discarded straws may have never been used.
In the US, Miami Beach called for a ban on plastic straws earlier this year, in the interest of making the “city cleaner and more environmentally responsible”:
Vice-Mayor Jerry Libbin and Commissioners Jorge Exposito and Deede Weithorn were behind the amendment, which expands the existing definition of litter to include straws. Current fines for trash discarded on the beach are between $50 and $500.
Beach police are still figuring out how to carry out the ban, noting that, if they see someone drinking a Starbuck’s iced coffee on the beach, they are not “going to go after” someone.
Recyclable Options to Plastic Straws
As plastic straws are not recyclable, another option is to use straws that are, such as those made of paper or bioplastic. A further option is to consider how we can avoid using so many straws in the first place. According to the Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian, the paper drinking straw was invented in the late 19th century by Marvin Stone. In the 1930s, Joseph Friedman, created a flexible straw, after seeing his young daughter strain to drink a milkshake out of a tall glass; this innovation was certainly helpful to patients unable to drink from a cup who had previously used straws made from glass, which required sterilization and broke frequently.
The plastic drinking straw was invented in 1951 with its inventor no doubt completely in the dark about the plastic waste heap his invention would contribute to. Indeed, in a sign of how things can come full circle, a website, Strawsome, now sells reusable drinking straws made of glass. But perhaps it’s time for many of us to think twice about whether or not we really need to take a straw “just in case” and urge stores to use recyclable ones (including some plastic ones) instead.
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