A drop in the ocean: the illusory but necessary promise of the plastic straw

Op-eds Opinions

Chances are that by now you’ve probably heard of the environmental issues that plastic straws pose. The media frenzy around this once-innocuous product first began nearly two years ago, with a large cluster of articles from major publications such as the New York Times and Bloomberg being released at rapid-fire pace early last year. By summer of 2018, the Wall Street Journal had gone as far as to dub the season the “Summer of the Plastic-Straw Bans.” Clearly, a cultural shift was occurring — the once subcultural environmentalist movement was inching its way into the mainstream. 

Most fast food places, restaurants, and coffee shops have followed through on catering to public demand by providing alternatives for customers. These alternatives include reusable mugs that can be returned back to stores, eliminating the need for single-use plastics in the first place; the more costly but commendable option of the paper straw; and finally, the polarizing plastic sip-cup lid that Starbucks, the largest coffeehouse player in the world, has introduced. 

The images and concerns that provoked individuals (and later, large swaths of society) to reduce their plastic straw consumption are honest works of storytelling. The visceral urgency of environmental crises was prompted by images of poor baby sea turtles with straw blockages in their noses and plastic choking the ocean’s sensitive ecosystems. The issues surrounding plastic straws, including their lack of biodegradability, animal chain ingestion of microplastics, and just plain pollution are undeniably and pressingly real. Yet consider this statistic: straws make up a meagre 0.025 per cent of all plastic that ends up in Earth’s waters anywhere around the globe. This becomes even more concerning when contextualized amidst the related numbers on overall plastic usage, like the 381-million tonne production output in 2015. Another stat from 2010 estimated that 8 million tonnes of plastic are being introduced into oceans per year. 

These numbers bring to the forefront the pessimists in all of us: our lives and personal contributions are infinitesimally small and relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Yet it would also be too simplistic to resort to a “we can do it!” mindset, where the mere power of individuals work collectively to exact definitive, immediate change — in this case, through the reduction of our plastic-straw consumption. The straw, however, is just a symptom of a worldwide addiction to single-use plastics; it constitutes just a fraction of the 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic waste floating around in Earth’s waters. 

The public’s fairly dynamic response in reducing straw usage as awareness increased is an encouraging stride. Individual initiatives to reduce plastic consumption and the recent explosion of mainstream environmentalism (in part thanks to Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg) illustrate just how urgent the issue at hand really is. And although the plastic straw may just be the tip of the environmental iceberg, the dialogue it’s created around the problem has incredible social value. From the way individual households are working to reduce food waste, to how college students actively challenge institutions to divest from fossil fuel industries, the conversation on environmentalism and climate change is just heating up. And it’s just about time — before the planet ends up just a little bit too hot.