Plastic Straws Are Not The Real Problem, Folks

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Magnus Larsson / Getty

A few days ago, my 9-year-old daughter proudly showed me her stainless steel straw she’d gotten during her school field trip. As she demonstrated how the tiny squeegee that came with the straw would keep it clean, she recited statistics about the danger single-use plastic straws pose to the earth’s oceans, especially turtles.

Well. My 9-year-old needs to up her game. Because plastic straws are the least of our worries.

I’m kidding. Sort of. I’m proud of my kid for being excited about conservationism, so I of course didn’t crush her enthusiasm. But I’m not kidding about the straws. We need to chill about the damn straws. Foregoing their use is a viral trend right now for earnest conservationists. Everyone’s seen the viral video of the poor little turtle getting a straw pulled out of its nose. Awful, and no one wishes that on any wildlife creature.

And why not quit using single-use plastic straws? For most of us, straws simply aren’t necessary (though they are absolutely necessary for individuals with physical limitations that require a straw to facilitate drinking), and there are viable alternatives for many of us such as paper straws or reusable stainless steel straws like the one my daughter brought home.

But we need to question our fanaticism (and judgment) when it comes to banning plastic straws, and here’s why:

First of all, plastic straws comprise a teeny, tiny percentage of the 8.3 million tons of plastic waste that gets dumped into our oceans every year. As in .03%. You can see how, if we focus all our attention on eliminating just this one small product, we may be drawing attention away from efforts that could have a far greater impact on our ecosystem. We may even cause more harm. Steel smelting, after all, is not known to be great for the environment.

We should be aware, too, that the data that went viral—the one that claimed Americans use 500 million plastic straws per day—came from a phone survey conducted by a 9-year-old in 2011. It may very well be an accurate figure, but we should perhaps apply a smidge more science here before we blow up the internets with anti-straw propaganda.

We most certainly have a problem with plastic debris being dumped into our oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which hovers between the coast of California and Hawaii, covers 1.6 million square kilometers—that’s twice the size of Texas—and is growing larger by the day. Oh, and by the way, it’s only one of five massive floating garbage islands. These need our attention more than straws, people.

So, what should we focus on instead? What actions would make the greatest impact to our environment?

We need to heighten awareness of what the greatest threats to our ocean environment really are. Many might be surprised to learn that the highest percentage of plastic waste in the garbage patch is actually fishing nets—comprising about 46% of the waste—followed by other types of fishing gear.

Also known as ghost gear, this plastic fishing equipment is abandoned at sea by commercial fishing enterprises. Not only do abandoned nets and other traps get entangled in our earth’s garbage patches, but they also do something far worse: they continue to catch fish and other marine wildlife. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science estimated that discarded crab pots catch 1.25 million blue crabs annually. And they’re just stuck there. No one’s eating them.

Countries that are a part of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization are working to establish regulations for disposal of this type of gear as well as a marking system that would identify the owner of dumped gear so they could be penalized. The problem is that many countries in the developing world rely on the fishing industry to support their economy, and many don’t have the infrastructure to properly dispose of fishing waste. On top of that, fishermen have to be convinced that it’s worth their while to spend the time and effort to dispose of their nets properly. Dropping it in the water is far easier, and it’s what they’ve always done.

But still, we have to do something about all this waste in our oceans. The garbage patches grow exponentially larger every year with no sign whatsoever of decline. In the past, for other concerning issues, consumer pressure has been effective in driving large scale change that has a real impact. It’s why we now have “dolphin safe” tuna. Prior to 1990, tuna companies used to purposefully net dolphins. It was because of consumer pressure that they stopped doing this and developed the “dolphin safe” label we now see on our cans of tuna. We need a similar campaign to keep fishing waste from being dumped into our oceans.

But this still isn’t even close to all we need to do. 40% of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste we produce every year ends up in our oceans, but the rest of it that doesn’t get recycled (only 9% is recycled) ends up in our landfills. What we have here is a consumption problem, and it needs to be addressed, like, decades ago.

So, what can you do as an individual to decrease the amount of waste that gets added to our environment every year?

Embrace a minimalist lifestyle—just use less. Fewer toys, fewer clothes, fewer shoes, fewer home decor items. Don’t drink bottled water. Use secondhand goods or upcycle whenever possible. Buy experiences instead of things.

And sure, if it makes you feel better about the turtles (that video really is painful to watch), go ahead and forego plastic straws. But just remember, if we really want to make an impact, we’ve got to know where the real problems are and attack those first.

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