A provocative op-ed from Kenneth Xu:
At my first beach cleanup this past spring, the marine debris that I found was predictable: old fishing nets, colorful sand toys, clear drinking straws, and soggy clothes that masqueraded as seaweed. I puzzled over how all of these castaway objects were originally created to be reusable, and how some still were even after being lost at sea—except, by definition, the single-use straws.
Americans go through 500 million drinking straws daily, at an average rate of around 1.6 straws per person per day. Think about it: when you eat out at a restaurant, you likely only use your straw for half an hour or so. Then when you finish your drink, that straw gets sent to an overflowing landfill, someday making its way into nearby waters. It will inevitably outlive you, since every piece of plastic ever produced still exists on Earth.
The plastic straw is a prime example of a wasteful single-use product that American culture has stubbornly latched onto, as if we were barnacles stuck to a boat hull. I’m not claiming that it’s specifically your fault though. Straws are automatically served to you whether or not you want them. The environment, however, doesn’t care about whether straws are used before they’re thrown away. The ocean garbage patches will still absorb the straws, the commercial fish will still ingest the microplastics, and human civilization will still eat the toxic fish. Soon we might as well start eating plastic; by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s seas. One Nature report has already found that 1 in 4 fish purchased from seafood markets in the U.S. and Indonesia contain plastic in their guts.
I have a simple proposition for all of us: turn down disposable straws whenever you don’t physically need them. It’s an acknowledgment of the unsustainability of the American lifestyle and a declaration of concern for the environment as well as the world’s public health.
Maybe sometimes you really do need a straw so that you can avoid splashing your drink, staining your teeth, or messing up your lipstick. Yet these reasons don’t account for the majority of the country’s straw usage. The plastic waste crisis necessitates changing the current norms of consumer culture; instead of straws automatically being provided with drinks, they should only be given by request like condiments in restaurants or plastic bags in grocery stores.
Transitioning to a straw-less lifestyle can be tough. When plastic straws come with every single drink, sipping on them is instinctive. In order to remember to actively turn down straws in the absence of a “serve-straws-upon-request” policy, I find myself viewing each straw as the sole reason that a poor sea turtle chokes or dies. Watch the viral Youtube video showing scientists removing a plastic straw lodged in a turtle’s nose. The researchers have no choice but to brutally pull out the straw with a Swiss army knife, provoking a stream of blood to pour out of the turtle’s distressed nostrils. The tortured expression on the turtle’s face is poignant and painful. And the vast majority of animals aren’t as fortunate as he was, since scientists don’t have enough time or money to save every single endangered organism in every body of water that has now been inundated with plastic death traps.
In particular, the straw epidemic is so daunting because it’s up to citizens to combat the problem—obviously no help is going to come from the current federal administration, which has practically declared war on marine animals. State and local governments should start filling the gap by prohibiting plastic straws in restaurants, where straws are almost never necessary. In order to maintain revenue, the plastic industry could produce and sell more reusable/recyclable/biodegradable/compostable straws, but consumers must first spark the change by pressuring vendors to purchase those eco-friendly alternatives and adopt “serve-straws-upon-request” policies (fast food giants like McDonald’s would be a good place to start). Above all, you should push yourself to overcome the quietly destructive straw addiction. Remember that people aren’t powerless to fight environmental issues, because we humans are the ones causing most of them.
Can the brief satisfaction of drinking from little plastic tubes really justify the repercussion of accelerating the deterioration of the ocean? Nah, I think we’ll be just fine without the suckers.
Kenneth Xu is a student at Yale University and the founding executive director of SEEC. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.