Starbucks just pledged to eliminate plastic straws by 2020. To date, it is the biggest food and beverage company to make this move, so the ban is more than just symbolic. Starbucks customers use more than one billion plastic straws each year.
The decision could encourage other companies to go the same route. Alaska Airlines and even McDonald’s are also attempting to reduce the use of straws.
But globally, we still have a long way to go.
Straws are just a small part of a massive problem, which includes everything from plastic heart valves to bicycle helmets, packaging on consumer goods, cups, toys, and million of other products.
The problem is that once we toss them out, plastic finds its way into the environment. The Ocean Conservancy records shows that volunteers have picked up 9 million straws on beaches and beside waterways — and this is just a tiny fraction of straws out there that didn’t already get swept out to sea. Once in the ocean they endanger wildlife and hurt valuable fisheries. Recyclers are challenged to handle straws owing to their small size.
And that’s just straws
Almost 2 trillion pieces of plastic are currently floating around in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the notorious floating dump that’s bigger than the state of Texas. (It was given its name by Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer).
It’s not a surprise that the Seattle-based company launched this initiative since its very home town just implemented a city-wide ban on plastic straws and utensils. Beginning July 1, consumers are no longer served straws and plastic utensils: instead, they are now offered paper-based straws and degradable forks and spoons.
Seattle’s ban will keep several million plastic straws out of the city’s waste stream each month, according to Dune Ives of Lonely Whale.
The ban has been a long time in the making. Seattle started ten years ago by banning foam and plastic clamshell containers, but it took longer for the supply market to come up with alternatives for other plastic items like compostable spoons that don’t just fall apart when immersed in hot liquids.
While banning straws from the Seattle’s 5,000 eateries won’t solve our planetary ecological problems, it’s seen as a vital “gateway” step that opens up conversations about what all of us can do to cut down — and one day eliminate — our plastic waste.
In addition to bringing your own reusable straws and flatware to restaurants, Fong urged people to encourage managers at the stores where they shop to reduce the use of packaging, another huge contributor to the plastic problem, she said.
“It’s not just about the straws,” Ives said. “It’s also about all the other single-use plastics that we can get rid of.”
Kate Melges of Greenpeace’s Oceans Campaign said currently the equivalent of one garbage truck full of plastic enters the world’s oceans every minute.
And of that, about one-third is made up of plastic items, such as straws, that were intended to be used only once, said Heather Trim, the executive director of Zero Waste Washington
“Fish are starting to eat plastic, plankton are starting to eat plastic. There are whales and turtles that are washing up all over the world with their bellies full of plastic,” Melges said. In fact, plastic bags were recently found in the digestive tract of an Alaskan halibut, a fish that could have wound up in a Seattle restaurant, she said.
The campaign to stop plastic straws from polluting our oceans was jumpstarted in 2015 when a video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose went viral online. More than 170 species of marine life are negatively impacted — or die — from ingesting debris, according to biologists.
Plastics is an enormous business. The industry employed nearly 965,000 workers in the U.S in 2016 (although shifting to another material would arguable keep the same number of people at work) The industry produced and shipped $404 billion worth of materials last year.
Plastics are linked to other environmental problems, including the long time they take to breakup. Plastics require petrochemicals for manufacturing, adding to CO2 that is the primary cause of climate change.