Planet or Plastic? The rise and fall of plastic straws

There is a quiet revolution happening and consumers are influencing a seismic shift away from single-use plastics. But is it too little too late?

reusable glass straws

With increased scrutiny on wasteful practices, 2018 was the year that the world waged war on plastic straws. In less than a century these ubiquitous plastic tubes spread ecological damage across the planet but their time may be coming to a close. We take a look through some of the big changes in the space and just how we got to this point.

A global shift

The swing away from plastic has been dramatic. The EU parliament has passed legislation that will ban single-use plastics by the year 2021 across all its nation states. Taipei has committed to banning single-use plastic including bags, stirrers and cutlery. The UK soon followed suit, announcing nationwide bans of many single-use plastics. Even the very word single-use plastic was named the 2018 word of the year by Collins Dictionary.

Hoteliers like the Marriott, Anantara and Hilton hotels are touting their eco-credentials by switching from plastic straws to sustainable alternatives. When Starbucks cease using plastic straws in 2020 across their 28,000 global stores worldwide it will eliminate the production of 1 billion straws a year and even McDonald’s will phase out straws from their UK and Ireland stores later this year.

Delta Airlines announced in October they will be ditching plastic straws, stir sticks, wrappers, and utensils on flights and in lounges across 2019 before Portuguese airline Hi Fly took it a step further, launching the first commercial flight without single-use plastic at the end of 2018. The flight is part of a trial only, but the direction is clear: single-use plastic’s days are numbered.

 
 

With more than 100,000 flights taking off each day around the world, the impact of cutting out plastic is clear.

It seems there is a global shift in mentality towards the issues of single-use plastic, but just how did straws become so popular to begin with?

A brief history of plastic straws

The humble drinking straw has origins spanning all the way back to 3000 BC, where Ancient Sumerians would use metal tubes for drinking beer, likely to avoid drinking the fermentation that would settle at the bottom.

Ryegrass straws were used in the 1800s but they fell out of favor as they would break down when immersed in liquid. By 1888 an inventor by the name of Marvin C. Stone patented the modern drinking straw. He created the device by wrapping paper around a pencil and later refined the straw by coating it in wax so that it wouldn’t dissolve in bourbon.

In the 1930s Joseph Friedman created the first bendable straw, which he promptly patented and mass produced. His product found favor with hospitals who found the bendable design ideal for patients who had difficulties drinking whilst laying in bed. The following decades saw plastic straws’ popularity spike and soon people were using them for sodas, milkshakes and they’re now an essential complement to smoothies and bubble teas, to the tune of billions of straws per year.

glass straws

How big is the problem?

Estimates suggest that 500 million plastic straws are used every day across the United States alone. This equates to 73,000 metric tons of plastic straws that are produced every day, with 79% of this waste accumulated in landfills, or worse, dumped into our oceans.

Whilst this represents only a fraction of the 4- 12 million metric tons of plastic waste that enters our waterways each year, straws are one of the most potent symbols of short term convenience resulting in permanent environmental damage. Millions of seabirds, turtles and other marine life are killed by consuming plastic each year and the plastic that they consume works its way up the food chain onto our plates.

glass straws
Global plastic waste production from 1950–2015 (Image: Cosmos Magazine)

“It’s a gateway, a way to start,” says Adrian Grenier, the Hollywood actor turned environmental advocate. “A lot of times people are overwhelmed by the bigness of the problem and often give up. We need something achievable for everyday humans. The challenge is if we can get rid of plastic straws, let’s start there. Then we can move on from there.”

His Lonely Whale project has gained huge media attention and directed further attention to the plastic crisis. The organization works to make impactful change through advocacy, education and awareness campaigns and was instrumental in the Strawless in Seattle campaign. The month-long campaign helped usher in policy change that saw the city ban single-use plastic straws in 2018.

The world is struggling to recover from its plastic obsession. Indeed, it’s almost difficult to imagine a world without plastics, yet their large-scale production and use only dates back to ~1950. Plastics Europe, one of the world’s largest plastic producers, reports that 1.5 million tons of plastic were produced in 1950, but by 2015, the world was producing 322 million tons of plastic. Since then, the pace of use is accelerating, not decreasing but there are positive signs.

So what next?

The planet seems to be waking up from its plastic fueled stupor but awareness is not enough on its own. Activism has brought this problem to the forefront and is helping to change attitudes towards plastic pollution. Corporations, municipalities and national governments are moving closer to a ban on plastic straws and it is almost daily that another government is taking major steps to curb single-use plastic damage.

These moves are welcomed by Nicholas Mallos, director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. “With eight million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean every year, we cannot afford to let industry sit on the sidelines,” he said.

It’s up to conscious consumers to make the switch and continue to keep putting pressure on businesses to move towards sustainable practices, ditching single-use straws and other unsustainable products. With dedicated effort across the coming years, the blight of plastic straws may be viewed as a destructive but mercifully brief phase in the planet’s history.

The alternative is far more concerning. A species choked by short-lived trinkets of convenience as we destroy the very systems that sustain us. The choice to move towards sustainable practices and products is less of a decision as a global imperative.

There’s only everything at stake.


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