Billions of tons of plastic pollution litter our oceans, from plastic bags to fast-food containers. Recently, a photo of a turtle injured by a plastic straw has attracted a groundswell of support for the plastic-pollution revolution. Certainly, the viral video showing scientists extracting the long straw from the bleeding turtle’s nostril is horrifying. Was this 2015 video the catalyst for the movement of plastic straw activism in 2018?
And what is it about straws in particular that has caught the hearts and minds of citizens globally? Why have straws (rather than plastic fishing nets, bags, nurdles, flip flops or sundry other ocean litter) become an incendiary force in the awakening that plastic is poisoning our planet?
Only a few years ago, plastic straws were used reflexively and thrown away daily without a second thought. Yet they are now seen as a perilous plastic hazard polluting our oceans.
Here’s a sampling from the tidal wave of 2018 headlines flooding mainstream news that focused on the elimination of plastic straws:
“McDonald’s Is Pushed to Ban Plastic Straws in the United States” -- Orange County Register (May 2018)
“Marine Biologist Wants to Make Plastic Straws Extinct on the Great Barrier Reef” -- Tree Hugger (January 2018)
“Bans on Plastic Straws in Restaurants Expand to More Cities” -- The New York Times (March 2018)
“Going Green: Alaska Airlines Says So Long to Nonrecyclable Plastic Stir Straws” -- USA Today (May 2018)
ECOlunchbox reached out to environmental thought leaders, including plastic-pollution youth activists, to uncover the story behind the plastic straw movement.
Here is what they shared with us:
"Sea turtles have long been the poster species for plastic pollution. In 1996, we tracked a loggerhead turtle through an area now known as the Great Pacific Plastiscape, and every kid knows turtles can mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. But recently, a video showing a plastic straw being slowly removed from a sea turtle’s nostril went viral. Many organizations have rallied around this singular example of needless plastic waste. One reason straws have gotten so much attention is that the problem is relatively easy to fix. Making straws available upon request and offering straws made of biodegradable materials such as paper could solve one part of the plastic-pollution stream. Fixing the straw problem won’t clean up the ocean, but every bit helps, and anything that gets people engaged in solutions is good. We need more creative problem solvers who share a vision of plastic-free oceans and waterways."
Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D.
Marine Biologist and Author
"Plastic straws are an easy target because they are arguably an unnecessary product that we can easily do without. Think about it: Do you use a straw when sipping wine or beer? Restaurants can easily not distribute plastic straws or can provide terrific alternatives such as paper straws. Plastic straws are also used in huge quantities -- about a billion per day, with 50 percent coming from the United States alone -- and they currently cannot be recycled. Finally, because of their shape, they can easily puncture trash bags and escape into the environment, and can end up in the noses of sea turtles and other creatures. I look forward to the day when we can look back and say, “I can’t believe we used to use plastic straws.”
Youth Activist and Founder
"Straws have been our thing since 1888: We were creating paper straws before it was a fad. Why a straw revolution now? Because they are the easiest and cheapest thing to change for mankind. They aren’t necessary, so we can cut back on usage and switch to better products like our paper straws. Not all plastic products have viable alternatives. These alternatives to plastic straws, are cheap compared to the alternatives for other to-go ware. Paper straws are only 2 cents a piece."
Aardvark, The Original Paper Straw
"I think everyone should be concerned about all single-use plastic. I just chose to focus on single-use plastic straws because I think they’re the easiest to eliminate. Many people do not use straws in their households, so why should people use straws while out and about? Skipping the straw helps build clarity regarding the amount of single-use plastic surrounding us constantly. I’ve heard from people who took the No Straw November challenge about how much more aware they are now of the amount of single-use plastic they use as well as see in grocery stores, restaurants, and office break rooms. It’s a real wake-up call that we need to become less dependent on single-use plastic for the health of all of Earth’s inhabitants."
Girl Scout Activist and Founder
Jr. Ocean Guardians
"When Lonely Whale considered optimal ways to reduce future plastic pollution and help marine life, eliminating plastic straws emerged as a natural starting point. These single-use non-recyclables rank among the top 10 pollutants collected during beach cleanups, and Americans alone are estimated to use 500 million straws daily. Removing them from our daily lives could have an enormous positive impact on our oceans’ health. We start with straws, but our work toward a more sustainable future certainly doesn’t end here."
"Straws are an easy invitation to the plastic-pollution movement. Plastic pollution is such a vast problem: It’s overwhelming to think about the billions of pieces of trash littering our oceans. We’re hearing that there are more pieces of trash in the ocean than fish. Then, along comes a turtle with the straw in its nostril, crying out to be seen and heard! We are horrified to think that something we use everyday caused this harm. This situation has allowed us to engage as consumers and activists in the plastic-pollution revolution by simply saying, “No straw for me, please!” It’s exciting for people to realize they can easily be part of the the plastic-pollution solution -- not part of the problem."
Sandra Ann Harris
Plastic-Pollution Entrepreneur and Founder
"The movement to ban plastic straws has been building for years, but we are at a tipping point right now. Everyone seems to hate plastic straws more and more, and we need to continue this fight. Straws are a single-use plastic item that were poorly designed to be used for a few minutes or less, and then thrown away. Beach cleanup data and 5 Gyres’ recent BAN List point to plastic straws as one of the top 10 items found. I urge people to track their single-use plastic footprint. People who live in cities and eat out will be particularly shocked at the number of straws they use -- they are everywhere!"
Goods Holding Company
"To be honest, I don’t think we should care more about straws than anything else ... but it’s a pretty easy ask, and it’s something to which most people can relate. Plus, so many people have seen that disturbing turtle video. The amount of plastic polluting our land and oceans has increased exponentially over the last decade, and we all need to do our part to turn that tide. The next time you are in a restaurant or bar that has not yet adopted an “on-request-only” policy, take note of all the straws in all the drinks. Every single one of those is headed to the landfill and/or the ocean."
The Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research and Education (COARE)
"Straws have been among the top 10 items found at beach cleanups for as long as we have been collecting data. They are used for moments and then discarded, and serve no other purpose than to do something we can already do with just a cup: drink. When you look at all of the other items we are finding at beach cleanups -- like bags, bottle caps, plastic bottles, to-go containers -- you sense that they all serve a bit more purpose than a straw. While we (at Surfrider and beyond) are actively campaigning to reduce and eliminate the use of the other single-use plastics, we are finding the straw is the easiest and most obvious choice of an item to eliminate from our waste stream, beach and ocean -- with very little to no impact on the consumer."
Rise Above Plastics Program Lead
Surfrider Foundation, San Francisco Chapter
"The invisible cloak of destruction worn by plastic straws has finally been removed, and the mass consumption and destruction associated with plastic straws is now highly visible to the general public. Reduction of plastic straw use is a tangible solution for many individuals, businesses and now countries, as they move toward utilizing accessible, eco-friendly alternatives. We should be concerned about plastic of any kind entering the ocean, but with the plastic straw, like other single-use plastic items, the consumer has the power to refuse it and prevent it from ending up in the ocean."
Founder & Director
Bahamas Plastic Movement
Many people feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the plastic problem. Giving up plastic straws is a small step that anyone can take to begin to address this global problem. From there, we build awareness about other single-use items we no longer need.
Founder & CEO