For years, the world has been relying on the ocean as a dumping ground for our plastic waste. This video of a sea turtle having a plastic straw pulled out of its nose sparked a public outcry to ban the use of straws. There are those who require plastic straws to drink, but for those people who don’t rely on these plastic tubes, it’s simple to cut them and other single-use plastics out of our lives.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: You’ve probably seen this video. That’s a plastic straw being pulled out of a sea turtle’s nose. The video went viral in 2015 sparking a public outcry to “say no to plastic straws.” And over the years the campaign has gained traction. Starbucks says by 2020 it will eliminate plastic straws, pivoting to biodegradable straws and a newly designed lid. McDonald’s UK, American Airlines, and Marriott Hotels have all announced similar changes. So why do plastic straws suck?
Starbucks says: “One of the major issues with plastic straws is that they are too small and lightweight to be captured in modern recycling equipment.”
We reached out to various recycling plants across North America to see if that was true. While some facilities told us they do recycle straws, two of the largest recycling facilities in the US said its machines don’t always catch straws. So they end up in the trash and eventually in landfills. So frustrating. I know.
Another place straws tend to end up? Beaches. George Leonard is the chief scientist for the Ocean Conservancy.
George Leonard: The data from our 2017 international coastal cleanup and there were 643,000 plastic straws that were picked up around beaches and waterways all over the world.
Narrator: To limit the use of straws Starbucks introduced a new lid that resembles a sippy cup. These new lids are made from polypropylene, which, according to Starbucks, can be widely recycled. But there’s one major problem.
Rachel Sarnoff: You know, the objective really was to phase out straws because they’re not recyclable. The shift to this lid really increases the amount of plastic that Starbucks is using per cup. I think it could be a part of a solution but I don’t think it’s the whole picture.
Narrator: Some critics have pointed out that straws only make up a fraction of our plastic waste. So why is everyone so worked up about them?
Leonard: I think straws are a bit of a poster child here for the bigger question of society’s kind of over-reliance on single-use plastics and the fact that a lot of the stuff is ending up in our marine environment. All plastics ultimately sort of break down and fracture into smaller and smaller bits of plastic as a result of being tossed around by the waves and then by the fact that sunlight basically makes the plastic brittle.
And so they create what we call microplastics. We’re finding these flecks of plastic in everything from the forage fish that are at the base of the food web up through the kinds of fish that we end up putting on our dinner plate.
If we get the kind of global plastic users and the major brands like Starbucks and some of these other companies like Coca-Cola that everybody knows about to really take ownership of their contribution to this problem and alter their business practices you know they can be real leaders here and they can bring the rest of the plastic supply chain along with them.
Narrator: So how do we start?
Sarnoff: We need to be more thoughtful about how we use plastic.
Leonard: We do know that there’s about 8 million metric tons of plastic overall that ends up in the world’s oceans every year and that’s kind of thought to be one garbage truck worth per mile of beach per day.
Narrator: About half of that plastic comes from countries in Southeast Asia that don’t have formal waste-management systems.
Leonard: Much of their local waste is disposed in sort of informal ways whether it’s behind the house or at a community dump which is essentially sort of an open pit or in some cases directly dumped into the ocean itself.
Narrator: In countries like the US plastic can also be swept down drains, into rivers leading to the sea. It can be flushed down the toilet or left behind by beachgoers. So what should we be doing differently? For starters pay closer attention to your personal habits.
Sarnoff: Get into the habit of bringing our own cup, fork, bag, straw. That’s what I have in my bag at all times.
Narrator: Stop flushing things other than human waste and toilet paper down the toilet. And remember, anything that goes down the toilet, drain, or into sewers goes to the ocean.
All drains lead to the ocean, kid.