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Say Goodbye to Plastic Straws

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Say Goodbye to Plastic Straws

Franco Picciurro, Reporter

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Our International Coastal Cleanups, volunteers have picked up more than half a million straws and stirrers, making straws one of the top ten items on our annual list. Straws pose a real danger to animals like sea turtles, albatross, and fish who can eat them. The average person uses 1.6 straws per day. If 25,000 people pledge to skip the straw we could save 5,000,000 straws—and prevent a lot of them from entering the ocean and possibly harming wildlife. However, reusable straws are made of materials like metal or glass that can be potentially hazardous for people with some conditions. Some disability advocates say there just aren’t enough viable alternatives to plastic yet. When it comes to the animals and the environment, although some people may need plastic straws, they are killing innocent animals and ruining nature and there are many more alternatives that you can use that could really help keep our planet alive and well.

The movement to ban these single-use drinking utensils picks up on the momentum generated by other single-use plastic bans. Perhaps the most well-known movement to ban single-use plastics has been the effort to ban or tax plastic bags. In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic bags. Throughout the early 2000s, a number of other countries in Asia and Africa adopted outright bans or took a combined approach, banning ultrathin bags, (usually less than 30 micrometers thick,) and levying taxes on thicker plastic bags. Other countries in Europe and North America have opted for bag levies with Germany and Denmark leading the way in the early 1990s. Similar to the plastic bag bans that dominated headlines a few years ago, plastic straw bans seem to be rippling through various municipalities and businesses. Indeed, this summer it has become especially difficult to keep up with the news on efforts to prohibit the use of plastic straws. The movement to ban single-use plastic drinking utensils is not confined to the United States. European governments are also taking up proposals to limit single-use plastic products. On April 18, the United Kingdom Government announced plans to ban plastic straws, stirrers, and plastic-stemmed cotton swabs as part of their 25 Year Environment plan. In a press release, Prime Minister Theresa May also committed to calling on other Commonwealth countries to “join in the fight against plastic pollution.” A little over a month later, on May 28, the European Commission put forth a broad proposal to not only ban plastic, single-use eating and drinking utensils, but also limit or restrict other plastic goods such as cotton swabs, beverage containers, filters on tobacco products, and even fishing gear. Lots of people argue that total bans would ignore the needs of those who rely on disposable plastic straws to drink independently. Reusable straws made of wood or metal can be harmful, and paper straws lack the flexibility to actually make drinking easier. Further, disability rights activists argue that targeting plastic straws can exclude disabled people from the environmental movement and lead to eco-shaming.

More harmful effects of these straws polluting the world are Plastic is not biodegradable, which means it does not break down into compounds (like carbon dioxide or water,) that can be easily reused. Because plastic doesn’t decompose quickly, when it becomes waste, it tends to either end up in landfills or wash into the ocean. The World Economic Forum reports that there are 150 million metric tons of plastics in the ocean. And if we continue this trend, scientists predict there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. “Eight million metric tons of plastic is equal to 5 bags … filled with plastic going into the ocean along every foot of coastline in the world,” said the lead author of the study, Jenna Jambeck, at an American Association for the Advancement of Science panel in 2015. “That is huge.” (Around that time, a YouTube video of a sea turtle with a straw lodged in its nose also went viral, racking up more than 26 million views.) Plastic kills marine life partially because of strangulation or choking. But the larger reason plastic is so dangerous is that it releases toxic chemicals like bisphenol-A (BPA,) when it breaks down. BPA, which mimics estrogen, messes with our hormones and can be carcinogenic. A recent study found that plastic also kills coral reefs by making them more susceptible to disease. Microplastics will inevitably get into our food — through both the fish on our plates and the water in our bottles. But researchers still aren’t sure how toxic microplastics are when we consume them this way. A lot of this plastic collects in “garbage patches” that form as waste and debris get pushed together by circular ocean currents known as gyres. These patches are not solid masses; rather, they are mostly made up of microplastics that make the water cloudy and gelatinous. At about twice the size of Texas, the largest garbage patch is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has been given the horrifying moniker the Pacific Trash Vortex. But garbage patches only provide a surface-level glimpse of the issue — literally. Only about 1 percent of plastic waste collects at the surface; most of it aggregates at the floor of the ocean, where deep-sea sediments behave as a sink for the microplastics.

What can we do to keep plastic out of the ocean?  Our current method of recycling is likely not the answer. Plastic is difficult to recycle more than two or three times, and a study conducted last year found that only 9 percent of all plastic has been recycled. Without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet. One of the most popular methods of mitigating the accumulation of plastic in the first place is what David called a “source-reduction approach.” That means eliminating use of those pesky single-use plastics, with policies like bag and straw bans. Restricting single-use plastics has worked in other countries. In 2002, Ireland imposed a tax on plastic bags, which was followed by a 94 percent decrease in the use of plastic bags. But beyond source reduction, there is no real systemic plan. Long-term issues of reducing abandoned fishing gear, developing materials that can replace plastic, and creating new waste management systems still persist. We know that with plastic straw bans, it’s not like it’s going to stop plastic production, it’s great to see recycling and waste management, but we have to start demanding plastic production reduction. You can also Replace plastic bottles and utensils with metal ones. Some coffee shops, including Starbucks, will even knock a few cents off your coffee if you bring your own bottle to help. And of course, it can’t hurt to say no to the straw or just try reusable ones.

What companies are trying to help with this movement and are starting to find alternatives. Starbucks announced its plans this week to eliminate all plastic straws from its stores by 2020, which the company described as “forward thinking in tackling the material waste challenge.” The coffee purveyor is joined by at least seven other companies in ditching plastic straws to cut back on environmental waste. The world’s oceans are filled with more than 150 million tons of plastic, according to the Ocean Conservancy. Starbucks estimates that its plans will eliminate more than 1 billion plastic straws each year from its more than 28,000 stores around the country. So, what will companies replace their plastic straws with? Here’s a brief guide: Starbucks will replace straws with recyclable plastic lids for all cold beverages. Straws made from other materials, like paper and compostable plastic, are also available for use with Frappuccinos upon request. Starting September 1, the hotel company will only make plastic straws available by request. Hyatt added that “eco-friendly alternatives” would be made available for other products, but did not specify what the alternatives are. Hoping to cut its environmental footprint in half by 2030, Hilton Hotels outlined its plans to remove plastic straws from 650 properties in 2018. The company says it will replace the plastic straws with a paper or biodegradable option. In February, Marriott International said it would remove plastic straws from more than 60 of its UK hotels, according to the BBC. The company says it will provide alternative options, like biodegradable or paper straws to customers who request them. American Airlines joined Starbucks and Hyatt by announcing on Tuesday its plans to ditch plastic straws by November of this year. The company will replace plastic straws onboard planes with biodegradable alternatives. SeaWorld Entertainment announced as “part of its mission to protect animals and habitats worldwide,” that it would eliminate single-use plastic straws and bags from all 12 of its theme parks. The company did not include in its announcement any plans to replace the products with other sustainable materials. Earlier this year, the company said it would eliminate plastic straws from all 50 ships by 2019. Royal Caribbean also said it will offer paper straws to customers by request. In addition to the companies announcing plans to eliminate plastic straws, a number of cities have also stated they would ban them and fine facilities that don’t comply. Cities with plastic straw policies include Miami Beach, Seattle, Oakland, and Berkeley.

The problem with the straw ban. In California and beyond, lawmakers are acting for the environment. But advocates for people with disabilities say the bans create yet another hurdle to dining in public. “What has happened here is a situation that happens time and time again when it comes the disability community, and that is ‘out of sight, out of mind,” said Lawrence Carter-Long, the director of communications at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. “If people don’t personally need straws, they fail or neglect to realize that there are people that do.” “With the plastic bag ordinance, there were a lot of fears and anxiety and complaints about how we were going to comply with the ordinance, and then the composting ordinance came along and everybody was also very anxious about it smelling up our garages,” Tang said. “Now it’s such a normal part of our lives.” But what pro-ban advocates continued to overlook was that what they considered normal in their lives was not always normal for people living with disabilities, said Alice Wong, founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project. Wong, 44, has a progressive neuromuscular disability, and relies on a wheelchair for mobility and a ventilator to breathe. Her hands and arms lack the strength it takes to tilt a cup to her mouth. Spills are a constant concern for her. “People think, ‘It’s so easy to give this up. If I can give it up, why can’t you give it up?’” she said. “It’s something most people don’t notice, but for a disabled person, straws are an accessibility tool.” “People say, ‘Why don’t you just stay at home, then? If you need a straw, why don’t you bring one?” But it’s never that simple. The compostable options don’t always hold up, especially in hot drinks, and can’t be used by people with severe food allergies. The reusable metal options aren’t malleable or soft enough for some with certain disabilities – Carter-Long has cerebral palsy, and one concern is being able to control his bite — and for those with limited mobility, bringing and then accessing their own utensils is just another hurdle to enjoying something commonly available to the able-bodied. “Some people like myself don’t have people around us to help us get these things out of our bags,” Wong said.  For people with disabilities, the whole debate is emblematic of a much bigger issue that happens far too often when it comes to the disability community: the erasure of a disabled person’s experience. “All of this could have been avoided if they consulted the disability community from the beginning rather than as an afterthought,” Long said.

Straws pose a real danger to animals like sea turtles, albatross, and fish who can eat them. Reusable straws made of materials like metal or glass can be potentially hazardous for people with some conditions. Perhaps the most well-known movement to ban single-use plastics has been the effort to ban or tax plastic bags. Reusable straws made of wood or metal can be harmful, and paper straws lack the flexibility to actually make drinking easier. If we continue this trend, scientists predict there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. But the larger reason plastic is so dangerous is that it releases toxic chemicals like bisphenol-A (BPA) when it breaks down. What can we do to keep plastic out of the ocean? Our current method of recycling is likely not the answer. Long-term issues of reducing abandoned fishing gear, developing materials that can replace plastic, and creating new waste management systems still persist. Hyatt added that “eco-friendly alternatives” would be made available for other products, but did not specify what the alternatives are. American Airlines joined Starbucks and Hyatt by announcing on Tuesday its plans to ditch plastic straws by November of this year. Wong, 44, has a progressive neuromuscular disability and relies on a wheelchair for mobility and a ventilator to breathe. The compostable options don’t always hold up, especially in hot drinks, and can’t be used by people with severe food allergies.

When it comes to the animals and the environment, although some people may need plastic straws, they are killing innocent animals and ruining our earth, which bestows is with life, and there are many more alternatives that you can use that could help keep our planet around longer.

 

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