The Villainization of Plastic Straws
By admin October 12, 2018

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On October 2nd, 2018, IKEA and London’s Design Museum opened their Last Straw exhibition. The Last Straw features the last single-use plastic straw IKEA will ever provide in any of their UK or Ireland locations. The exhibit highlights IKEA’s People and Planet Positive strategy, specifically its ban on single-use plastics that will be completely implemented by the end of 2018, while inspiring people to take the step towards reducing their consumption of single-use plastics with IKEA. This exhibit also showcases the worldwide villainization of straws as part of the movement to decrease plastic waste in our oceans.

Eliminating single-use plastic straws has been 2018’s cause of choice with countries, states, cities and even businesses around the world banning their use, distribution, and, in some cases, even production. Plastic straw bans have become more widely adopted and enforced than plastic bag bans. Additionally, plastic straw bans are highly popular among people with a recent study finding 80% of respondents positively viewed the bans. Plastic bag bans on the other hand are fairly contentious, as evidenced by New York State’s continued failed efforts to implement a policy to ban plastic bags.

Straws have been a large part of human culture for thousands of years, with evidence of large metal tubes for drinking in early South American cultures. In the US, people would use rye grass as straws up until the 1880s. It was in 1888 that a man named Marvin C. Stone designed and patented the first modern day straw, originally made of paper. Disposable plastic straws first became popular in the 1950s and have only grown in popularity since. Today, 500 million disposable straws are used daily, solely in the United States. In 2017, they were named the seventh most common piece of trash collected on global beaches.

Globally, over 300 million tons of plastic is produced annually – more than 35 million tons of which become plastic pollution. A quarter of this, nearly 9 million to tons of plastic waste, end up in and around the oceans every year. Single-use plastic straws comprise just 0.025% of that by piece and even less by weight.

So why, of all the different plastic waste products are straws taking the brunt of the blame and spurring people to action? After all, straws only makeup 4% of plastic trash. However, it is estimated that there is anywhere between 437 million and 8.3 billion plastics straws on the entire world’s coastline. Furthermore, plastic straws take over 200 years to decompose and are incredibly difficult to recycle. If they make it to our oceans, they are staying for a long time and have severe environmental consequences.

Many credit a 2015 video of a sea turtle having a straw removed from its nose as bringing attention to the movement – the video has almost 33 million views to date. There is also a social media campaign titled #StopSucking, run by Lonely Whale, featuring celebrities pleading for people to do just that. While this certainly contributes to the popularity of the movement, straws are largely unnecessary. Most people can easily either go without a plastic straw or use a substitute. Removing single-use plastic straws from every day use is easy and tangible. It doesn’t require drastic behavior change. It also helps people feel as though they are helping solve a problem, taking a step towards fighting plastic pollution. Straws don’t provide as much utility as bags, so it is an easy adjustment for many.

Banning straws alone will not get us where we need to go. However, letting go of a single piece of plastic is the first step in creating the behavior change necessary to effectively build towards the behavior change necessary to really address plastic pollution. Diana Cohen, CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, says they “look at straws as one of the gateway issues to help people start thinking about the global plastic pollution problem.”

Yes, more needs to be done. But this is the start of getting people and countries on board, moving the preservation of our environment to center stage.


Additional Information:

  1. The Last Straw
  2. The Amazing History and the Strange Invention of the Bendy Straw
  3. Sea Turtle with Straw up its Nostril
  4. A Brief History of How Plastic Straws Took Over the World
  5. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made

Thanks for sharing !

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