The Last Straw

Ah… the humble plastic straw. A handy and seemingly inconsequential piece of beverage paraphernalia to get you through a long night of rum and cokes, or for your iced latte the day after.

But have you ever considered the impact of the plastic straw? Turns out, Australians use around 10 million plastic straws each day. While your body will metabolise the rum and coke you binged on in, hopefully, no more than a day or two, the earth has no such luck with plastic straws. It takes almost 200 years for a single plastic straw to decompose. Given that plastic straws have only existed since the 60s, this means that every plastic straw that has ever been produced is still in existence, and all the straws you’ve ever used will easily outlive you.

Every year one million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die from ingesting plastic. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastics in the ocean than fish, and 99% of all sea bird species will have ingested it. A 2014 study found that ocean surface water alone contained as much as five trillion plastic pieces. The World Economic Forum depicted the amount of plastics going into the ocean each year as the equivalent of dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute.

Why Straws?

Plastic straws themselves are one of the most picked up items during beach clean ups. Despite this, they only account for about 0.03% of all plastic waste in our oceans. Some people argue that focusing on plastic straws alone isn’t the way to go, because they make up such a small percentage of the world’s plastic products, and that campaigns to eliminate them could distract people from more useful efforts.

The focus on straws dates back to a 2015 viral video of a sea turtle with a bloody plastic straw up its nose, which brought forth a plethora of campaigns against plastic straws, such as The Last Straw. This specific campaign aims to address the issue from both sides, by encouraging consumers to reject the use of plastic straws, and by encouraging businesses to give out less plastic straws through staff training and information.

Campaigns such as this have definitely gained some ground in the past few years. It’s not everywhere, but plenty of the cafes and bars I frequent now don’t offer plastic straws, or if they do, have signs telling you that you should reconsider your choice about using one. As I’ve become more aware about the issue, alongside reducing my use of other single-use plastic products like bags and coffee cups, I’ve started using a metal straw for when I get drinks out and about.

While it’s only a small thing, it makes me feel better knowing that one less straw is going to the landfill every time I get a bubble tea or iced coffee. But how much of the responsibility should fall to me, the individual? And am I really making a difference?

The Individual, Institution or Corporation

There’s so much more awareness about single-use plastic in general, and people, myself included, can feel guilty about their use of plastic. People are becoming more eco-friendly in their day-to-day life and thinking more about the choices they make. For straws specifically, people are finding that the reusable kind such as metal, bamboo and glass are super durable, easy to clean, and are affordable.

Biome, an eco-friendly retailer providing sustainable alternatives to everyday living, found that in one year their customers kept over 1.6 million plastic straws from entering the oceans and landfill by using their reusable straws. So while it’s great that as consumers we can make a small difference in the amount of plastic straws going out into the world, wouldn’t it be more effective if plastic straws simply weren’t available, or were less available, to begin with?

Fahlquist argues that the moral responsibility for environmental problems should be shifted from individuals to institutional agents like governments and corporations.

A recent senate report has recommended that Australian and state and territory governments agree to phase out single-use plastics by 2023, however Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said it’s unlikely to happen right away, but rather be a gradual process that we should commit to.

And due to changes in consumer attitudes to do with plastic straws, food and retail companies have also made efforts to phase out single use plastics, especially straws. Hungry Jacks is currently looking at ways to phase out plastic straws, and Ikea and McDonalds have stated they will phase them out by the end of the year, and by 2020, respectively.

Small Actions Leading to Big Change

While it might seem impractical to focus so heavily on plastic straws alone, one could argue that in doing so we have all become more aware of the issues around single-use plastics in general, and are simultaneously spurring on big companies and organisations to make eco-friendly changes, too. Yes, plastic straws make up a small portion of the ocean’s plastics, but if we all reduce our plastic footprint one small step at a time, it will lead to bigger changes in the long run.  

Just one straw… said a million people.

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