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Why plastic straws are being banned by cities, businesses

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Coca-Cola girl drinking from crazy straw glasses
Straw bans alone won’t
solve anything. But maybe they’re a start.

YouTube/Coca-Cola

  • Plastic straw bans are going into effect around the US.
    California just
    became the first state
     to nix plastic straws from
    restaurant tables. Starting in 2019, customers in that state
    will have to ask if they want a straw.
  • In July,
    Seattle
    became the first major US city to ban single-use
    plastic straws and utensils.
  • Corporate plastic bans are also quickly gaining
    momentum: companies like
    Starbucks,
     Aramark and American
    Airlines
     are vowing to stop offering plastic
    straws.
  • Plastic straw bans alone won’t change
    much. 

    Less than 9% of all of the plastic
    we use every day gets recycled. Instead, most ends up in
    landfills or floating out in the ocean.
  • That problem won’t be fixed by forgoing a straw, but
    environmentalists say letting go of a single piece of plastic
    could be a first step in a much-needed larger behavior
    change.

Plastic straws are quickly becoming a dining taboo. 

On Thursday, California Governor Jerry Brown
signed into law a first-of-its-kind bill
 aimed at
reducing straw waste in the state. Starting in 2019, sit-down
restaurants in the Golden State won’t serve any drinks with
straws, unless customers ask for them.

Starbucks has vowed to get its iconic green sippers completely
off store shelves by 2020, while Seattle banned all plastic
utensils, including straws, from bars and businesses city-wide in
July.

San Francisco quickly followed suit and passed an ordinance that,
once approved, will ban plastic straws beginning in July of 2019,
as the
San Francisco Chronicle
reported. (Several smaller cities,
including Malibu
and Miami
Beach
already have their own bans, or prohibit straws on the
beach.)

But the truth is that straws are just the tip of the trash heap
when it comes to plastic waste.

In 2015, plastic consumption worldwide totaled 300
million metric
tonnes. That essentially means that for each
one of the world’s 7.6 billion humans, we’re making 88
pounds
 of plastic a year. The packaging industry is
still growing, according to Euromonitor, with
flexible plastics
leading the pack. 

It may seem as though the quarter-of-an-inch diameter drinking
straw is the least of our worries. But environmentalists say the
fight’s got to start somewhere. 

“We look at straws as one of the gateway
issues 
to help people start thinking about the
global plastic 
pollution
problem,” Plastic
Pollution Coalition
CEO Dianna Cohen told Business
Insider. 
“They’ve been designed to be used for
a very short amount of time, 
and then be
tossed 
away.” 

Simply put: we have a plastic problem. And it doesn’t end
with straws. Cohen is one of many in the environmental crowd that
are on a crusade to get people using less plastic, immediately.
So if people can’t ditch all of their plastic habits, then maybe
it’s time to start smaller, and forget the straws, right
now.

People in the US now
spend more money eating out than eating in
— often with food
coming in plastic or throw-away containers.

It’s not just food. Most plastic turns to trash after a
single use. If you think you’re doing Mother Earth a solid by
slinging your used plastics into the recycling, think again. More
than 79% of
all plastic waste ends up in landfills, or gets stuck in the
natural world
, regardless of which sorting bin you put it in.
Another 12% gets burned up in incinerators, adding to particulate
matter to the atmosphere. Only a remaining 9% is actually
recycled, according to a 2017 report published in Science
Advances

“It’s wonderful if Starbucks is going to phase out
straws, 

that’s a great start,” Cohen said. But
she says it’s clear that the effort can’t end
there: “L

ook at how much other single use
plastic is at Starbucks. I

t’s a joke.” 

Other companies aren’t just cutting back on straws. In
July, food service giant Aramark, a company that operates in
schools, prisons, hospitals, and businesses in 19 countries
around the world, vowed
to reduce its straw use 60% by 2020
, while still making some
straws available to people with disabilities who need an assist
getting liquids from cup to mouth. The company also says it’ll
cut back on plastic cutlery, plastic bags, and “various packaging
materials.” 

The plastic problem

Every piece of plastic that’s produced in the world started
out as the product
of a piece of coal, a slick of oil, or
natural gas. There were naturally-derived polymers around long
before that, including materials like animal horn and rubber, but
the kind of plastic that we package things in today didn’t show
up until 1907, with the invention of the
first synthetic plastic
made from fossil fuels: Bakelite.

Because of the way these new, manufactured polymers are heated up
and cured, many plastics can’t ever truly be recycled. That
robust quality once made them a wonderfully remarkable, nearly
unbreakable replacement for older, more fragile products like
porcelain or glass. But it also means that “plastic might
sit in a landfill, or litter a street, for thousands of years
without decomposing,” as the BBC put
it. 


the ocean cleanup plastic great pacific garbage patchThe Ocean Cleanup

The plastics that our straws are made from (usually one
like polypropelyne)
might be recyclable, at least in theory, but most aren’t. They’re
dumped into landfills or hauled off o

n
big boats over to China
 — a plastic trade that’s in
decline.

Some straws drift out to sea, becoming just one more
piece of the 79 thousand-ton colossal floating iceberg of
trash called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Scientists
who’ve studied the patch, a trash heap wider than
two whole Texases
that bobs somewhere between Hawaii and
California, have discovered it’s essentially a watery pit of
litter and illegal dumps that’s trapped in the ocean currents,
and it is basically all plastic. A 2018
report
based on aerial and water surveys of the patch found
that “more than 99.9%” of it is plastic, and it’s not just straws
in there. Plastic objects identified in the patch included
containers, bottles, lids, bottle caps, packaging straps, ropes,
and fishing nets. 

So why pick on straws?

The anti-straw movement may have first picked up steam because of
a viral
video
that started going around in 2015. Texas A&M
graduate student Christine
Figgener
 happened to be out tagging some sea turtles
as part of her research in Costa Rica, when she noticed something
encrusted in the nose of one of the male turtles.TurtleSea creatures are often at
the mercy of our plastic trash.
nicolas.voisin44/Shutterstock

“We thought it might be another parasite, or something living on
or in him,” Figgener
said in a video
. The team soon figured out it was actually a
“plastic straw stuck in his nose,” and removed it, hoping the
extraction might help give him some more breathing time on
Earth. 

“I
n a way, that turtle became a poster child,”
Cohen, who in addition to heading up the PPC also creates

plastic art
to raise awareness about the problem,
said. “W

ell, a poster turtle.”

But there’s debate as to whether ditching straws will
really lead to more measurable actions. It’s possible that people
will feel content that they’ve done their part for Mother Earth,
simply by forgoing a single straw, without changing other
behaviors. 

Researchers who’ve studied these
questions have come up with
mixed results
. Sometimes, doing one good thing for the
environment can kickstart people into other Earth-friendly
behaviors, but other studies suggest that people might give
themselves a pass on changing other behaviors once they’ve done
one good deed — what’s called a “single action bias.”

It’s time to ditch all kinds of plastic

What it really comes down to is living with less plastic, and
changing old behaviors. Other countries are aggressively
regulating plastics already. Morocco, once a land laden with
fields full of drifting plastic bags,
banned the production, sale, and import of plastic bags
completely in 2016
. Rwanda was one of
the first places in the world to ban plastic bags
, in 2008,
and in the US, both California
and Hawaii
followed suit, while other states (like Michigan) rose
up against
the idea of ever weaning themselves off plastics
and banned bans.
India says
all single-use plastic will be banned there by
2022. In England, Queen
Elizabeth now insists
that no plastic straws or bottles
appear on the royal estates. 

But there is historical evidence that Americans can change
their ways, improving the environment while growing the economy.
I
n the 1960s,
unregulated pollution was causing all kinds of problems to crop
up across the US,
 from rivers bursting into flames, to
offshore oil spills and asthma-inducing car exhaust. We haven’t
gotten rid of any of these things completely, but after the US
started the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, we
began regulating their use, and the
economy grew
 as the health of the entire country
improved. Documerica epaThe
Walt Whitman bridge, which connects Philadelphia and New Jersey,
was a smoggy sight in August 1973.
Dick Swanson/Documerica

The EPA has also helped
promote
the simple “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra. Cohen
hopes people can add one more word into the mix in 2018:
“refuse.” As in, refusing plastic containers wherever they’re
offered, whether it be at a coffee shop, an ice cream stand, or
the grocery store. 

Behavioral scientists know this kind of habit change is
hard, b
ut as social psychologist
John Bargh previously told Business Insider
, “the more you
practice doing something, the less effort it takes.”

Make reuse a habit, and it becomes a lot easier for your brain to
handle. Start carrying around your own containers, Cohen said.

“It’s going to sound like something exciting and new,”
Cohen said. “
Really, it’s what our parents and our
great grandparents 
did.”

Cohen admits she loves straws, and now has a whole collection of
alternative straws at home: paper, bendable steel, rye wheat, and
glass.

“Plastics seem inexpensive because all of the
cost to the environment and ocean and animals have been
externalized,” she said. “The thing about single-use
plastic is it’s actually really inconvenient for our health,
for the health of the ocean, for the health of wildlife in
the ocean, and on land.”

 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how
much plastic is produced per human every year. It is 88
pounds. 

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