Banning plastic straws — a look at how much it really helps, and who it could hurt
Several cities, businesses and world leaders have pledged to ban the plastic products in an effort to rid the world’s bodies of water of waste.
But does it really make sense to zero in on this one product? Sort of.
Chelsea Rochman, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto who studies pollutants in freshwater, explained that straws are just one piece of a much larger problem.
“Straws are kind of low-hanging fruit, they’re an easy win and that’s fantastic,” she said.
“I just hope that everyone realizes that’s one step of many and there is no silver-bullet solution to plastic pollution.”
Here’s a look at the movement against plastic straws, how effective it really is — and who it could end up inadvertently hurting.
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Plastic waste in oceans by the numbers
United Nations figures show nearly nine million tonnes of plastic — bottles, packaging and other waste — enter the ocean each year, killing marine life and entering the human food chain. Straws add up to about 2,000 tonnes.
They also only account for about four per cent of the plastic trash by number of pieces.
That doesn’t mean they’re not significant. Rochman explained that they are typically “one of the top 10 items” found in beach cleanups.
Overall, about 80 per cent of all litter in oceans is made up of plastic.
The UN has launched a campaign to eliminate major sources of marine litter, such as single-use plastic products, by 2022.
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Why plastic straws then?
The United Nations and individual politicians didn’t specifically target straws.
Much of the movement began with the European Union’s and the United Kingdom’s bid to reduce plastic waste from oceans.
In April, British Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to eradicate plastic waste by 2042 as part of a “national plan of action.”
But their directive highlighted several types of single-use plastics, which included straws, but also cotton buds, wet wipes, stir sticks, and more.
Part of the reason plastic straws became such a hot-button issue is because of a viral video, which showed marine biologists removing a straw from a sea turtle’s nostril.
Rochman said the video accurately shed light on how straws can hurt animals.
“There’s evidence of straws being the culprit, causing death in animals when they eat them or causing injury when they get stuck in organs,” she said.
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Not all straw replacements are equal
It’s up to businesses how they choose to replace plastic straws.
Some have opted for paper or compostable plastic straws, while others are planning on buying reusable metal ones.
Starbucks, which is the largest food and beverage company to pledge a plastic straw ban globally, will have strawless lids.
Rochman said businesses should choose the replacement wisely. If they don’t, the whole process can be a waste of time and money.
“If you’re going to replace something with compostable plastic, you absolutely have to have a mechanism for it to be composted. In most cities around the world there is no magic green bin that we can put those materials in,” she explained, suggesting paper replacements may end up being more environmentally friendly.
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Who will replacing plastic straws hurt?
Those cutting out straws or thinking of replacements should also consider the unintended difficulties they could cause those with disabilities.
Several advocates have spoken out saying that people with mobility limitations need straws to drink.
James Hicks of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities told The Canadian Press that those with disabilities are being treated as an afterthought in the discussions.
“One need should not trump another. The need for good environmental products should not trump what’s needed for people with disabilities, and vice versa,” Hicks said.
He added any law about straw use would have to include assurances that straws remain accessible and affordable for those who still need them.
Similar concerns were raised by the U.S.-based advocacy organization Ed Wiley Autism Acceptance Library in a Facebook post.
The organization flagged that straws made from alternative materials aren’t good enough.
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“Paper and biodegradable straws break down faster than many of us can use them,” the post read.
It added that metal straws can become too hot and cause injury. And those with mobility limitations may not be able to wash reusable straws.
— With files from The Associated Press, The Canadian Press
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