For Christmas, I gave three of my favorite people a rather strange gift. To each I gave two stainless steel straws (one straight and one bent) and a cleaning brush, and made little holders out of pseudo-suede. They were somewhat gag gifts, rather like the proverbial gold toothpick for the person who has everything. But they do highlight a problem with our indiscriminate use of plastic.
You may have seen the video of the poor sea turtle having an embedded plastic straw removed from its nostril – not pretty. And the statistics are daunting – it is said that Americans use 500 million plastic straws per day, many winding up on beaches and in the ocean. There is a huge island of plastic in the Pacific; some estimates put it at twice the size of Texas.
Straws are important, but they are just the tip of the plastic iceberg. Even 500 million straws per day (if that figure is correct) adds up to a tiny percentage of the plastic that winds up in landfills or the ocean. According to the group Ocean Cleanup, 46% of the plastic in the Pacific comes from lost or abandoned fishing nets.
Most of the consumer plastic in the ocean pours in from developing countries that literally have no garbage collection or landfills – and certainly no recycling centers.
Straws are feeling the heat because there are so many of them, their length of service – minutes -- is so short as to be frivolous, and they are everywhere. Many restaurants now have signs that they will give out straws only on request. Laws are being passed in areas as diverse as Seattle, California, Taiwan, and Scotland. Even Starbucks is creating a sort of adult "sippy cup" lid for its coffee.
I hope that this trend doesn't act as a relief valve, to make people think they are solving the problem by refusing straws, when there is so much more to be done. Let it be the "gateway" for harder stuff – cutting down on the use of all plastics, recycling (only about 9% of plastic is ever recycled in the U.S.), and supporting measures to clean up land and ocean.
In the meantime, if you don't need a straw for medical reasons, there's no harm in avoiding putting even more junk into the ocean. And there are fun alternatives: metal, glass, straw (yes, real straw!), bamboo, paper. . . And maybe they are the perfect gift for someone who has everything!