In May, the European Union proposed eliminating all single-use plastic products, including drinking straws, drink stirrers and cotton swabs. This followed a move by Britain in April to do the same. The BBC reported earlier this month that the Swedish home goods retailer Ikea will cease selling single-use plastic products by 2020. And by the end of this year, the largest supermarkets in New Zealand and Australia no longer will sell plastic straws and will phase out plastic bags, according to The Associated Press.
In 2015, a Texas A& M University marine biologist working in Costa Rica happened upon a sea turtle with a plastic straw lodged in its nostrils. She and her team removed the straw in a painstaking process they captured on video. The stomach-turning and deeply unsettling eight-minute video went viral, alerting millions of viewers to the threats posed to marine life by the ordinary household items few of us imagined could be so harmful.
Since then, countless other such videos and images have been circulated around the world: of a stork encased in a plastic bag; of fish with guts filled with plastic products; of loggerhead turtles caught in six-pack plastic rings. Just this month, a pilot whale in Thailand died after consuming more than 80 plastic bags.
In an interview published in February in National Geographic — which has launched an awareness effort, “Planet or Plastic?” — Adam Nicolson, author of the book “The Seabird’s Cry,” explained that seabirds find food by smelling a chemical called DMS, “which is released when phytoplankton, i.e., vegetable plankton, is crushed, usually by zooplankton eating it. … If you leave plastic floating in the sea for over three months, it starts to release plumes of DMS. The huge amounts of plastic found in seabirds’ stomachs is because they are mistaking this plastic for food. It clogs their guts, and makes them unable to get enough real food into their stomachs.”
It’s a horrible and ever-worsening problem, which is why European governments are beginning to address it. We have some catching up to do in the United States.
In Britain, if you want a plastic bag at a grocery store, you’re going to pay for it. That only happens in a relatively few places in the U.S. — New York City, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Maine, among them. By embarrassing contrast, the Pennsylvania Legislature actually passed a bill last year that would have prevented local municipalities from banning or taxing plastic bags; Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed that bill, arguing — correctly, in our view — that it would have hampered municipalities’ constitutional obligation to protect the environment.
If we wait for the Pennsylvania General Assembly to act to ban single-use plastic products, we’ll be waiting for a long time. That’s why, this summer, we urge you to make one simple lifestyle change that could have a monumental impact — stop using plastic straws.
Because, as a February article in Popular Science magazine pointed out, straws generally fall through the cracks — literally — of American recycling systems.
And unless you have a disability that makes drinking without a straw difficult, straws are frivolous.
“Once found mostly in soda fountains of the 1930s, straws have become one of the most ubiquitous unnecessary products on the planet. No global usage figures exist, but Americans alone use 500 million straws daily, according to the National Park Service,” National Geographic tells us.
“Although straws amount to a tiny fraction of ocean plastic, their size makes them one of the most insidious polluters because they entangle marine animals and are consumed by fish.”
The next time you’re strolling along a beach, note how many straws litter the sand and float in the waves. Then consider the seabirds, fish and turtles that may be harmed by those straws.
Hawaii and California have pending strawban legislation, “while Seattle — the birthplace of the Starbucks disposable, to-go coffee culture — passed a measure banning plastic straws and utensils that goes into effect in July,” The New York Times reports.
McDonald’s said in a news release Friday that its restaurants in Britain and Ireland will complete their transition to paper straws next year. McDonald’s restaurants in Belgium are testing alternatives to plastic straws, and tests are planned for select U.S. restaurants later this year, the company said.
In Lancaster city, we know of at least one restaurant — Rachel’s Cafe & Creperie — that has instituted a by-request-only straw policy for most drinks. We’d like to see others join the effort.
The next time you’re offered a straw, think of the sea turtles. And just say no. Sip, don’t slurp.
Reducing the use of straws isn’t going to solve the problem of ocean pollution. But it may make us more mindful of the other single- use plastic products we reach for without thinking.
And if you aren’t doing so already, please consider taking your own reusable shopping bags to the supermarket or mall. The fewer plastic bags we use, the better — for our oceans, marine animals and planet our children and grandchildren will inherit.