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What happened to plastic straws?

Corporations and communities ban plastic straws to help save sea life

Created date

September 13th, 2018
colorful plastic straws are organized into a wave pattern

Plastic straws, like the colorful ones making up a wave here, often end up in our water ways and may be mistaken for food by wildlife.

In 2015, a team of biologists from Texas A&M University was researching sea turtles off the coast of Costa Rica. Their mission was to collect ectoparasites from sea turtles’ shells. 

While taking samples from one particular turtle, they noticed something unusual about his nose. Christine Figgener, one of the biologists, grabbed her camera and started videotaping as the team investigated.

Using pliers, the scientists attempted to extract an object lodged in the sea turtle’s nose. At first, they thought it was a worm but when part of it broke off, they noticed a black stripe on the object.

A full-size plastic drinking straw had gotten stuck in the sea turtle’s nose. As they pulled out the length of the straw, the turtle’s nose dripped blood. It hissed, squealed, and squirmed, but eventually, the team successfully removed the straw.

Figgener posted the video of the sea turtle’s ordeal on YouTube. She says she had no idea how much of an impact her video would have. She just wanted people to see the kind of harm plastic can do to sea creatures.

To date, Figgener’s video has been viewed over 32 million times and is credited with igniting the movement to ban plastic drinking straws.

Facts and figures

Americans use over 500 million plastic straws each day. McDonald’s alone uses 95 million straws a day.

Straws are just one part of the global plastic pollution problem. This situation is particularly dire for sea life. Experts say that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

While plastic straws are made from polypropylene, a recyclable plastic, most straws never make it through recycling facilities. Mechanical recycling sorters are not equipped to manage something as small and lightweight as a straw so they are frequently diverted to the landfill or, even worse, they end up in waterways and oceans.

Some straws are made from compostable plastic, but to properly compost, they must be sent to a commercial composting facility—a step most communities are not set up to manage.

To combat the growing problem of plastic pollution, Seattle, Wash., became the first city in America to ban plastic straws. New York City, Hawaii, and California have pending legislation to ban plastic straws.

Across the Pond, Britain and Scotland have proposed straw bans, and the Queen has banned plastic straws and bottles from all royal estates, cafés, and gift shops.

Many restaurants now give plastic straws only when a customer requests one. And you’d be hard pressed to find plastic straws on a growing number of college campuses.

In August, Starbucks announced that it will stop using plastic straws. Their newly designed biodegradable lids are said to eliminate the need for straws altogether.   

“Starbucks’ decision to phase out single-use plastic straws is a shining example of the important role that companies can play in stemming the tide of ocean plastic. With eight million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean every year, we cannot afford to let industry sit on the sidelines, and we are grateful for Starbucks’ leadership in this space,” says Nicholas Mallos, director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program.

Alaska Airlines, Disney, Royal Caribbean, and Hilton Hotels have announced similar bans.

Controversy

Most people will do just fine without plastic drinking straws, but for one group in particular, plastic straw bans pose a problem.

Many people with disabilities rely on plastic drinking straws. For some, straws may be the only way they can efficiently drink, and too often, paper straws are not strong or resilient enough.

Unfortunately, some businesses and communities eager to support the environment enacted their “no plastic straw” policies without consulting the disability community. Most large chains say they will have plastic available upon request, but advocates for the disabled fear that message will get lost in the public’s desire to save the oceans.

History of the straw

Before there were manufactured straws, people seeking a different way to drink used hollow reeds.

That changed in the late 1800s when Marvin Stone of Washington, D.C., secured a U.S. patent for the paper drinking straw.

In 1937, Joseph Friedman saw his young daughter struggling to drink her milkshake through a tall straw. Friedman solved the problem when he invented the world’s first flexible or “bendy” straw.

Sometime in the mid-1960s, plastic straws were introduced. The public loved them, and by the mid-1970s, plastic ruled.

Today, consumers are once again choosing paper, due in large part to that notorious sea turtle video.

Currently, Aardvark (a division of Hoffmaster) is the only paper straw manufacturer in the U.S. Not surprisingly, the future looks bright for them.

Says Andy Romjue, president of Hoffmaster’s foodservice division, “In the coming months, we will aggressively ramp up Aardvark’s manufacturing capacity to meet the rapidly accelerating demand for paper straws.”

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