In early July, 2018, Seattle became the first city in the United States to ban plastic straws and utensils in bars and restaurants (except for those made of compostable materials). Soon after, the Seattle-based company Starbucks pledged to get rid of plastic straws in their stores by 2020. These two announcements are part of the latest push among many citizens and companies to ban the use of plastic straws.
But why all the fuss about plastic straws, anyway? Lots of people say straws, and plastic in general, is bad, but what about the material is so harmful? Why is plastic bad for the environment?
Why Do People Hate Straws Specifically?
Lots of things are made of plastic, but it seems as of late, a lot of focus has been on plastic straws specifically. So why all the straw hate?
Many believe that this whole initiative was started with a single turtle. In 2015, a video depicting a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose went viral. In the video, experts try to remove the littered straw from the turtle’s nasal cavity. The straw was wedged all the way down into the animal’s throat, and the removal process was painful. Many were outraged at what they saw, and it suddenly brought a wave of awareness to the potential dangers of plastic straws and the environment.
(You can click here to view the video, but be warned, the content is graphic and may be upsetting to some.)
Why Is Plastic Bad for the Environment?
Videos like the sea turtle one provide clear examples of how plastic can negatively impact the environment, but the potential harmful effects of plastic go beyond that. Scientists have actually been warning about the dangers of plastic for years. Not only does it affect animals, but many researchers believe it can have dramatic effects on the quality of life for humans as well.
Of the estimated 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste produced since the 1950s, only 9% has been recycled, and another 12% has been incinerated. What is left has remained in landfills and the natural environment.
The main problem with plastic is that it doesn’t biodegrade in any meaningful sense. Plastic waste created by humans could linger around in the environment for hundreds, or even thousands of years.
While plastic itself doesn’t do much harm sitting in a landfill, the main concern many scientists have is when this plastic enters our oceans. Larger marine animals can become entangled in plastic bags and other debris. Sometimes, plastic gets mistaken for food.
When plastic is exposed to salt water and ultraviolet light, it can break into small pieces known as “microplastics.” These little fragments are virtually impossible to clean up. What’s worse, they are small enough to be eaten by fish, who in turn are then consumed by humans. A recent survey by Plymouth University found that plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish.
Further Reading: What Are Microplastics?
More research is needed to determine just what impact this has on human health, but most people probably would prefer their seafood sans plastic.
Plastic – It Isn’t All Bad
Plastic certainly can have a negative effect on the environment, but when it comes to the material, it is more an issue of quantity, and not quality.
There are many benefits to plastic – it is cheap, easy to make, and useful for a variety of things. In the medical field, for example, plastic is a necessity (think of all the plastic gloves, tubes, and equipment).
Plastic is also great for packaging and reducing food waste. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that in 2016, some 815 million people in the world, or one in ten, were suffering from chronic undernourishment. Contrast this with the United States specifically, where it is estimated that the average person wastes some 1,400 calories of food per day. Plastic packaging substantially reduces organic waste, itself a major environmental and humanitarian concern.
So plastic itself shouldn’t necessarily be seen as the enemy. The bigger issue is the amount of plastic created, and what it is being manufactured for.
Plastic is noted for being long-lasting, yet many items made of plastic are for single use – everything from toy packaging, diapers, utensils, and Q-tips. The world is currently producing nearly 300 million tons of plastic each year, and about 50% of this will be used only once and then thrown away.
Among the worst of these “throwaway” plastics are drink bottles. Some 480 billion plastic bottles were sold globally in 2016. Almost a quarter were made by Coca-Cola. On average, it is estimated that a plastic bottle will take 450 years to biodegrade.
What You Can Do to Help?
Remember the three R’s you learned in grade school? Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. These elementary tips can yield great results when practiced by many.
Reduce the amount of plastic products you on a daily basis.
- Buy goods that come boxes instead of plastic containers
- Avoid buying frozen foods because their packaging is mostly plastic
- Don’t use plasticware at home
- Purchase food, like cereal, pasta, and rice from bulk bins and fill a reusable bag or container (it’s cheaper too)
- Use a razor with replaceable blades
- Choose matches instead of disposable plastic lighters
- Use cloth diapers
- Forgo straws (adults look silly when they use them anyway)
Reuse plastic materials when you can.
- Use a reusable produce bag
- Reuse containers for storing leftovers or shopping in bulk
- Use a reusable bottle or mug for your beverages
- Pack your lunch in reusable containers and bags
And make sure you learn how to properly recycle common plastics. Recycling plastic is the key to keeping it out of our oceans.
Fixing the plastic problem will not come overnight, but there are small things everyone can do to combat the sheer volume of plastic created each year.
Want proof of just how bad ocean plastic can be? Check out this article on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.