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What’s the Deal with Plastic Straws and Their Environmental Impact? – Part 1

Plastic being devastating the ocean is not exactly news. We’ve been hearing about the dangers of plastic bags, and single-use plastics for decades now. It’s pretty common knowledge that if we don’t change things right now, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

A relatively new enemy, though, seems to be plastic straws. Ever since a video of a poor turtle with a plastic straw up its nose went viral, everyone seems to be in favor of completely banning plastic straws for good. In fact, you might have heard that Americans go through 500 million plastic straws a day. Alarming, right? Well, turns out that statistic is much more fiction than it is fact. That number didn’t come out of a study, there’s no official data to prove it, and no one has bothered to actually check the number since the statistic started floating around in 2011. See, it came from a phone survey a 9-year-old did as part of a homework. He called three of the major straw manufacturers, asked for an estimate of the numbers in the straw market and averaged the answer. That was it. The number has never been confirmed or debunked by an independent study, it’s just been repeated as irrefutable truth for years. The fact is, we don’t know how many straws the average human goes through in a day, so we don’t know exactly how many of them end up as debris in the ocean.

That is not to say that straws aren’t an issue, as with most single-use plastics, they do end up in the ocean quite often, but chastising people for their use of straws and making such a public issue out of it might not be as helpful as we think. The issue with the war on straws is two-fold: 1) There are lots of other things we use daily that are way more dangerous to the environment and deserve more attention thus the war against straws can encourage slacktivism, and 2) Banning straws all-together negatively impacts disabled people.

Straws Are Not Nearly Enough

Straws are not even in the top 10 of the most dangerous plastic waste polluting the ocean. If all the straws in the world were to make their way into the sea, they would account for less than 1% of all of the plastic waste. The number one waste in the ocean is fishing gear. In other words, activism focusing on straws is not really doing much for the environment.

Of course, avoiding plastic straws is easier than actually calling on companies to be more responsible with their fishing gears. Sitting at the restaurant and saying no to straws provides an automatic feeling of “I’m doing something good for the environment” even if you are really not doing that much. Serious environmentalists are sure to be doing quite a bit more than just refusing to use straws, but the more casual activists might think this is enough and call it a day. Straws might be a trendy cause, but it’s a kind of useless one. In fact, bottle caps are a much bigger problem when it comes to pollution, but there’s no trendy hashtag to catch people’s attention.

All this is not even taking into account the problems the war on straws causes on disabled people who actually need plastic straws, the lack of eco-friendly alternatives, and of course, the intersectional nightmare banning plastic straws causes. We’ll be tackling that in part 2.

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