How Plastic Straws Are Killing Our Oceans

Monday, April 1, 2019

Single-use plastics are one of the biggest pollution problems facing our oceans. About fourteen billion pounds of garbage, most of it plastics, gets dumped in the ocean each year.

And in recent years, plastic straws have become a particular point of contention.

The United States alone uses about 500 million plastic straws per day. That's enough to fill about 127 school buses. And most of them find their way into the sea.

Efforts to limit their use have made some headway. Reusable glass or stainless steel straws have become more popular. A few cities have moved to ban them outright, and a handful of corporations have pledged to discontinue their use.

Still, their ubiquity persists because of their utility. While traveling, they're often just too useful to disregard. But the goal to limit our individual impacts means looking for alternatives.

Why You Should Pack Stainless Steel Straws on Your Next Volunteer Trip

We all want to make sure that the projects we undertake are as responsible as possible. But there are some quality-of-life items that many would struggle without.

Glass straws are a fine alternative for home use but are naturally not ideal for travel. Stainless steel is a much more practical option for travel.

Consider these five reasons why you should consider forgoing plastics for a reusable alternative.

1. They Will Never Fully Biodegrade

Part of understanding why single-use plastics are so terrible for the oceans is understanding the difference between biodegradation and degradation.

While it is true that all plastics will break down to a certain extent under the right conditions, this is very different from them being biodegradable.

Something that is biodegradable means that something can naturally be digested by bacteria or fungi, effectively recycling it back into the ecosystem.

Something that is degradable merely gets broken apart into smaller pieces. This difference is important because when plastic degrades, the bulk of it appears to disappear.

However, its total mass is still floating in the ocean, just in smaller pieces.

2. Plastic Waste Degrades into Microplastics

So as plastics degrade, they just break down into smaller pieces. This actually makes them more hazardous to ocean life.

For starters, the smaller pieces make them easier to be ingested by oceans life. Sea fowl, in particular, are prone to accidentally swallowing small pieces of plastic.

But to make matters worse, the breakdown of plastics releases toxic and carcinogenic chemicals into the water. Given the high volume of plastic waste that gets dumped, these chemicals can easily build to dangerous levels.

3. Non-Compostable Are Not an Ideal Alternative

Some people with disabilities need to use straws, and ones made from compostable plastics are often the best option.

However, the problem with using them during travel is that they need to be disposed of properly. Compostable plastics can only be properly disposed of in the conditions of an industrial composting facility. If they find their way into seawater, they just behave like any other pieces of plastic.

As there is no guarantee that composting services will be available on your travels, they're not an ideal solution.

4. Straws Can't be Easily Recycled

Though plastic straws are made of recyclable material, only a small fraction end up being recycled.

For one thing, even under ideal circumstances, plastic straws are simply too light to make it through a mechanical recycling sorter. They just drop through sorting screens and mix with other small items where they either contaminate recycling loads or get disposed as garbage.

And that's ignoring the fact that the current recycling crisis has forced many municipalities to cancel recycling programs outright.

Until the issues with our recycling infrastructure can be resolved, reducing the number of single-use plastics we use needs to be a priority.

5. Straws are One of the Most Common Pieces of Litter

As of this writing, straws are the sixth most common piece of debris found during ocean trash cleanups.

And because of their small size, they present an increased danger to ocean life. Sea birds and turtles often swallow them by accident, choking them or causing internal blockages.

As careful as someone may be to avoid littering, we are all only human. While busy working a volunteer site, it would be easy to accidentally toss a drinking straw, adding one more threat to ocean life.

The Onus for Change is on All of Us

We all want to make a difference in the world, and a good place to start is minimizing our individual impacts.

Packing stainless steel straws in your kit is just one way that you can avoid being part of the problem.

Of course, if you’d like to do more to help sea turtles, you can always volunteer abroad to help them.