I went out recently with some friends and had a curious experience. And of all things it was around disposable plastic straws. What caught my attention was that each place we went to did not offer straws. More importantly though the establishments were proud and adamant about their no-straw policy. It opened up some interesting conversations, and I was presently surprised how this has apparently become a grass routes movement throughout Canada… and around the world.
Now, I could also deviate into a discussion about plastics, but I think that the straw debate is more interesting as something that most of us can get behind. I will make a few references to plastic, but the focus will be on disposable plastic straws.
The History of Straws
For a detailed account of the history of straws, please read Catherine Hollander’s 2014 Bon Appetit article “A Brief History of the Straw – From actual straw straws to bendy straws to straws that might save the world, you’ll be drawn into this brief history of why it’s great to suck”. Here is a precis borrowed from a Huffington Post article:
Drinking straws have a long history and weren’t always a big problem. The first ones were made from straw, or any straw-like grass or plant. That changed in the 1880s when Washington, D.C., resident Marvin Stone was drinking a mint julep through a rye grass stalk. He didn’t like the residue it left in his drink, and so he wrapped paper around a pencil, removed the pencil, glued the paper together and a straw was born! In 1888, Stone patented a version made from manila paper coated with paraffin.
Forty years later, Joseph B. Friedman saw that his daughter was having difficulty drinking though a straight straw. He inserted a screw into a straw, wrapped dental floss around the ridges, removed the screw and invented the flexible or “bendy” straw, which he patented in 1937.
The explosion of plastic’s popularity in the 1960s and into the ’70s spelled the demise of the paper straw. After that, most drinking straw innovations were as much about marketing as function — including the twisty Krazy Straw and the wide straw-and-spoon combo used to drink slushy drinks.
Plastic straws are now ubiquitous.
One of the first questions though would be are disposable plastic straws really a problem?
The Problems with Disposable Plastic Straws
Plastic straws have been a trending issue in the environmental and waste management space for some time now, but it was a video of Costa Rican marine biologists removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nostril that went viral online that emphasized the issue. Warning though… this video showing rescuers removing a straw from a sea turtle’s nose in graphic and bloody detail.
Research from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), an independent Australian federal government agency responsible for scientific research, has conducted research showing that:
- 71% of seabirds and 30% of turtles have been found with plastics in their stomachs.
- And when they ingest plastic, marine life has a 50% mortality rate.
Further, when plastic ends up in the ocean it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces known as “microplastics”. These do not biodegrade or dissolve, and often attract toxins and poisons which pose real threats to marine life. These toxins are becoming embedded in our fish and seafood supply chains.
These non biodegradable plastics represent both an environmental and an economic problem: The United Nations Environment Programme found that plastic waste causes $13 billion in annual damage to marine ecosystems.
In a National Geographic post highlighting some of the issues with plastics and straws, Laura Parker wrote:
Of the eight million tons of plastic trash that flow every year into the world’s oceans, the plastic drinking straw is surely not a top contributor to all that tonnage. However, because straws are small and lightweight, they often never make it into recycling bins; the evidence of this failure is clearly visible on any beach. Straws are among the top ten items found during beach clean ups. And although straws amount to a tiny fraction of ocean plastic, their size makes them one of the most insidious polluters because they are consumed by marine animals, seabirds, turtles and fish.
For something that in most cases is a lazy unnecessary luxury item that can easily be not used, it definitely causes more harm than good. How much harm though?
The Size of the Disposable Plastic Straw Problem
CSIRO has also published studies with the following statistics:
- Using trash collected on U.S. coastlines during cleanups over five years, that there are nearly 7.5 million plastic straws lying around America’s shorelines.
- That means 437 million to 8.3 billion plastic straws are on the entire world’s coastlines.
The following images come from the Ocean Conservatories 2017 report about their 2016 coastal cleanup, and highlight some interesting quantifiable statistics about straws.
You can see the size and impact of this event from the image on the far left. From their 2017 report:
From 112 countries around the world, volunteers, site captains, state and county coordinators worked tirelessly to collect over 18 million pounds of trash. Thanks to you, we covered enough miles of coastline to walk around the moon twice. We’ve collected enough balloons to lift a 2,200 lb. walrus and enough fishing line to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench – the ocean’s deepest point – nine times over.
So the negative impact and scope of the problem are significant.
There is an opportunity for the vast majority of us to join the growing environmental campaign aimed at convincing people to stop using straws to help save the oceans. To quote Diana Lofflin, the founder of StrawFree.org: “You use a straw for 10 minutes, and it never goes away”.
What I found most interesting doing a very basic search was how much is actually being done about this.
International Trends and Movements around Disposable Plastic Straws
Removing or restricting disposable plastic straws is not a new trend. In 2012 London’s Soho restaurants started waging a war on plastic straws, and they created a campaign called Straw Wars. Restaurateurs would sign up to either get rid of disposable plastic straws completely or provide them only when requested by a customer, and the campaign has over 180 signatories.
Other movements include:
In the US, the NY Times published an article in 2017 highlighting that Malibu, Seattle, Davis, San Luis Obispo, Miami Beach, and Fort Myers are
“cities that have banned or limited the use of plastic straws in restaurants. Straws, routinely placed in glasses of water or soda, represent a small percentage of the plastic that’s produced and consumed but often end up on beaches and in oceans. Advocates said laws aimed at cutting back on the use of plastic straws can help spur more significant behavioral changes… ‘Giving up plastic straws is a small step, and an easy thing for people to get started on. From there, we can move on to larger projects’”.
Even McDonald’s recently announced that it will join the anti-straw movement. McDonald’s “announced it would switch to paper straws in all of its 1,300 U.K. locations starting in May. Stores also will keep straws behind the counter, and customers will have to ask for a straw if they want one. Chains such as Wagamama and Pizza Express are also moving away from plastic straws”.
Scotland recently announced plans to ban plastic straws by the end of 2019, and in April of this year, British Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to eradicate single use avoidable plastic waste by 2042. During the recent Commonwealth summit there was a push for leaders from the Commonwealth (a network of 53 countries, mostly former British colonies) to agree to the Blue Charter. “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced… that Canada will endorse the Commonwealth Blue Charter – an initiative aimed at protecting and conserving the world’s oceans”. However, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked if he would join Britain in the of avoidable plastic waste ban, regrettably Prime Minister Trudeau skirted the question, responding that he will “talk about this with the G7 nations and look at the solutions.”
What is Happening in Canada
Regrettably, at the time of the writing of this post Canada is lagging behind at least 40 countries that have enacted some sort of national policy to curb the use of single-use plastic drink bottles, plates, straws and grocery bags. As indicated by Tony Walker, “an environment professor at Dalhousie University says Canada’s push to lead the G7 into a war against plastic garbage would get a whole lot more heft if the federal government started enacting stronger policies at home”.
One area the Canadian Federal Government has paid attention is with microbeads. The Canadian Federal Government has forbidden the manufacture and import of personal care products containing microbeads by the end of 2017 and has banned the sale of such products by the end of 2018.
After doing a little research, despite the Canadian federal governments general lack of leadership with plastics in general, I was pleasantly surprised at the grassroots movement taking place in Canada as outlined below by some of the following examples.
I found the following very interesting in that it provides a quantifiable break down of the types and amounts of plastic waste in Canada. The maps show the locations of where the trash was found and how much was found in terms of tiny plastic and foam pieces. The second map specifically focuses on straws.
…This is the first year The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, a conservation effort between the non-profit group Ocean Wise and the World Wildlife Fund of Canada, have counted the pieces of what the groups call “tiny trash.”
“It’s not that they haven’t always been there, but we’re starting to understand why they’re so awful for the environment,” Rachel Schoeler, manager of the cleanup, told CBC Toronto. “Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it’s not litter.”
Nationwide last year, approximately 58,000 volunteers working with the cleanup at various events picked up 333,289 pieces of tiny plastic and foam from all types of shorelines, including oceans, lakes, rivers and wetlands. Cigarette butts come in second with 244,734 pieces picked up. The rest of what the group calls their “Dirty Dozen” list includes items like plastic bottles, food wrappers and straws.
What I found interesting was the impact of straws, listed as number 9:
Canada is a huge country. Starting from the East Coast and traveling to the West Coast and then ending out up North, here are some great examples of what grass roots movements are doing.
From Canada’s most eastern province, there was a post in March 2018 about Newfoundland’s busiest pubs stopping the use of plastic straws. I liked the following insights from the post:
Aryn Sanojca, a marine biology student at Dalhousie University, says there’s nothing she hates more than plastic straws.
“One huge factor that is often overlooked is that plastics don’t break down into non-existent pieces,” she said. “They break up into smaller pieces that find their way into the entire trophic system.”
She says that research is being done that shows coral species are mistaking plastic for food and willingly ingesting it.
“Another factor that is worth considering is the use of resources that go in to creating disposable plastics,” she said. “It is common to dismiss the impact of using disposable plastics that are recyclable because they are recycled, but both the production and recycling of disposable plastics is incredibly resource intensive.”
Missed frequently, plastic recycling is sent to China and surrounding countries for processing via ships, and shipping is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
In the Province of Nova Scotia, in Halifax City where I was born, in July 2017 the following was reported: Some Halifax restaurants are giving up plastic straws and stir sticks, after being taken aback by how many they were using. Also out east in the Province of Prince Edward Island, there was a news article in April 2018 called “The last straw: Some P.E.I. restaurants look to reduce plastic use – ‘If we can eliminate such an unnecessary piece of garbage, it would be great to do so'”. In New Brunswick, a restaurant chain in Moncton, Dieppe and Shediac decided in 2017 that they are no longer offering plastic straws to their customers. “According to the owner, Kolin Barely, his is the first establishment in Moncton to cut out plastic straw use entirely, after he found that all three St James Gate locations go through around 150,000 straws annually”.
A lot is happening in the Province of Ontario where I live. In 2017 there was an article about Toronto bars starting to move away from plastic straws to save the environment because bar owners say straws are an unnecessary waste, and opt to use biodegradable straws for customers who need them. An initiative called The Last Straw in Toronto started in 2018 that aims to reduce single-use plastic in Toronto restaurants and bars. In the city of Guelph in 2018 the University of Guelph said goodbye to plastic bags and straws. Along with the University announcement the Plastic Free Guelph advocacy group works to remove straws in the city.
In the prairies, in the Province of Saskatchewan there was a January 2018 article about Saskatoon restaurants choosing eco-friendly options over non-recyclable plastic straws. In the Province of Alberta, there was an April 2018 article about Edmonton restaurants joining the plastic straw ban movement, despite the lack of committal from our Prime Minister.
On the Western boarder in British Columbia, in the Okanagan Valley there was a February 2018 article about a plastic straw ban taking hold. In Vancouver city on the west coast, there was a 2016 May article about the Surfrider Foundation’s #StrawsSuck campaign targeting Vancouver restaurants and cafés. In April 2018 there was an article about the city of Vancouver seeking public input on reducing single-use plastic bags, straws and coffee cups.
From up north in the Northwest Territories and Yellowknife City, there was an April 2018 article about some Yellowknife bars choosing to ditch plastic straws.
Also in Canada, Boston Pizza switched to biodegradable straws from plastic straws in January 2017. “Across our 380 restaurants in Canada, each restaurant might go through an average of maybe over 120,000 straws a year. So that’s a huge impact,” says Cygal.
Once again most of these initiatives were grass root. These examples were obtained from a very quick internet search.
Are these Trends to Restrict Disposable Plastic Straws Helpful
Realistically, does a ban on straws make that much of a difference in terms of the enormity of plastics pollution. Straws only make up about 4% of the plastic trash by piece, and far less by weight. On average, a straw only weighs about one sixty-seventh of an ounce or .42 grams. There is an estimate that of all those billions of straws thrown away in the waters, it only adds up to around 2,000-ish tons of the 9-ish million tons of plastic waste that yearly hits our waters.
However, there is a huge symbolic impact that can lead to raising awareness and changing behaviour, and every little bit helps. A 2018 article from the Associated Press points out that…
“Bans can play a role,” says oceanographer Kara Lavendar Law, a co-author with Jambeck of the 2015 Science study. “We are not going to solve the problem by banning straws.”
Scientists say that unless you are disabled or a small child, plastic straws are generally unnecessary and a ban is start and good symbol. These items that people use for a few minutes but “are sticking round for our lifetime and longer,” Lippiatt says.
Marcus Eriksen, an environmental scientist who co-founded the advocacy group 5 Gyres, says working on bans of straws and plastic bags would bring noticeable change. He calls plastic bags, cups and straws that break down in smaller but still harmful pieces the “smog of microplastics.”
What We Can Do
GPM Global is anti-waste and anti-straw, and we encourage others to get involved.
In general, this small, slender tube, is utterly unnecessary for most beverage consumption. Granted there are some people who love their straws, or want to protect their nice lipstick or their sensitive teeth. There is also an argument that it is pretty hard to drink a smoothie or a Tim Horton’s Iced Capp without a straw while driving. It is true that in some situations such as “anyone who has had a stroke, has autism, MS or other life changing physical issue needs a straw”. For all of these though, there are alternatives to disposable plastic straws that will deal with this.
That said, what can we do? Here are some suggestions:
- Request “no straw” at bars and restaurants.
- Encourage your favorite eateries to only provide straws on request and to use compostable or reusable options to the plastic straw.
- Share your commitment with others, such as making it official and signing up with the Plastic Pollution Coalition to take the ‘No Plastic Straw’ Pledge
- Basically DO LESS: less consumption, less waste, less straws.
It is true that compostable straws are more expensive. One site mentioned that 3,000 biodegradable straws cost more than $100, while the same amount of regular straws run less than $20. There are many options though such as metal, glass, bamboo, straw or paper. Some come with cleaning brushes. One company is even making straws from pasta, which can be cooked later! Watch out though because there are a lot of fake biodegradable / compostable straw options out there.
Purchasing reusable straws: http://www.greenmunch.ca/reusable-straws/
For parents, here is a fun July 2017 article entitled “Want to save the planet? Start by saying no to the plastic straw – Reducing waste and helping protect the environment can start with small changes“.
Appendix A: Some Context for the Problem with Plastic Waste
There are a lot of discussions on the waste of plastic, environmental and health and safety concerns, as well as possible solutions.
Estimates on the plastic waste humans produce are fluid, including where they end up and how much is recycled. One estimate is that:
“Humans have produced 18.2 trillion pounds of plastics since large-scale production began in the early 1950s and we’ve put most of it in the trash.”
What does that mean though? Here is a visual from 2017:
According to the United Nations, more than eight million tonnes of plastic leak into the ocean each year, “equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic every minute.”
Appendix B: Watch out for Quotes about 500M Straws Thrown away Daily
I liked the following YouTube post, but the 500M straws thrown out daily statistic in the US is unfortunately nonsensical (always check out references).
The actual number of straws being used is unclear. Calderon, along with news outlets writing about this issue—from CNN to the San Francisco Chronicle—unfailingly state that Americans use 500 million plastic straws a day, many of them ending up in waterways and oceans. The 500 million figure is often attributed to the National Park Service; it in turn got it from the recycling company Eco-Cycle.
Eco-Cycle is unable to provide any data to back up this number, telling Reason that it was relying on the research of one Milo Cress. Cress—whose Be Straw Free Campaign is hosted on Eco-Cycle’s website—tells Reason that he arrived at the 500 million straws a day figure from phone surveys he conducted of straw manufacturers in 2011, when he was just 9 years old.
Cress, who is now 16, says that the National Restaurant Association has endorsed his estimates in private correspondence. This may well be true, but the only references to the 500 million figure on the association’s website again points back to the work done by Cress.
More important than how many straws Americans use each day is how many wind up in waterways. We don’t know that figure either. The closest we have is the number of straws collected by the California Coastal Commission during its annual Coastal Cleanup Day: a total of 835,425 straws and stirrers since 1988, or about 4.1 percent of debris collected.
References (in no particular order)
The Associated Press, NY Times. “Science Says: Amount of straws, plastic pollution is huge“. April 20, 2018
Camille Bains, The Canadian Press. “The Last Straw aims to reduce single-use plastic in Toronto restaurants and bars“. April 21, 2018
Talia Ricci, CBC News. “Toronto bars starting to move away from plastic straws to save the environment – Bar owners say straws are an unnecessary waste, opt to use biodegradable straws for customers who need them”. August 24, 2017
Alana MacLeod, Global News. “Toronto restaurants pushing for the elimination of plastic straws to reduce waste”. April 13, 2018
Hailey Salvian, CBC News. “University of Guelph says goodbye to plastic bags and straws – University announcement comes as Plastic Free Guelph advocacy group works to remove straws in the city“. Mar 21, 2018
Ashleigh Mattern, CBC News. “Changing the world, one plastic straw at a time – Saskatoon restaurants choosing eco-friendly options over non-recyclable plastic straws”. Jan 20, 2018
Julia Wong, Global News. “Edmonton restaurants join plastic straw ban movement, amid lack of committal from PM“. April 21, 2018
Emma Davie, CBC News. “Some Halifax restaurants giving up plastic straws, stir sticks – ‘We were a little taken aback by how many we were using,’ said Geir Simensen“. Jul 13, 2017
Maryse Zeidler, CBC News. “Surfrider Foundation’s #StrawsSuck campaign targets Vancouver restaurants and cafés“. April 11, 2016
Amy Judd, Global News. “City of Vancouver moving to reduce use of straws in bars, restaurants“. April 4, 2018
Clare Hennig, CBC News. “One and done: Vancouver seeks public input on reducing single-use plastic bags, straws and coffee cups“. April 10, 2018
Kelly Hayes, Global News. “Plastic straw ban taking hold in the Okanagan“. February 1, 2018
Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi, CBC News. “Some Yellowknife bars choosing to ditch plastic straws“. April 23, 2018
Straw Wars: Soho London is the first community to support straw wars. Soho is leading the way in creating a better and more sustainable urban living environment by taking responsibility for our planet.
Katie Dangerfield, Global News. “Britain is banning plastic straws — and asking Canada to join“. April 19, 2018
Daniel Victor, NY Times. “Bans on Plastic Straws in Restaurants Expand to More Cities“. March 3, 2018
Rick Morgan,CNBC. “McDonald’s switches to paper, but plastic straws remain big environmental problem“. April 22, 2018
Cheang Ming, CNBC. “Plastic pollution: Firms and governments are combating millions of tons of waste“. April 22, 2018
Victoria Battcock, Kicker News. “Local bar cuts the use of plastic straws to lower carbon footprint – One of Newfoundland’s busiest pubs has stopped the use of plastic straws”. March 1, 2018
Leah Meyer, Conservation Council of New Brunswick. “Moncton restaurant cuts out plastic straws entirely“. September 14, 2017
David Suzuki, The Huffington Post Canada. “Don’t Suck. Stop Using Wasteful Plastic Straws – Ordering your drinks without straws is a small sacrifice but a big step to reducing the amount of plastic we produce and waste“. July 19, 2017
Catherine Hollander, Bon Appetit. “A Brief History of the Straw – From actual straw straws to bendy straws to straws that might save the world, you’ll be drawn into this brief history of why it’s great to suck“. October 23, 2014
Cassandra Szklarski, National Observer. “The growing environmental pitch for ditching the straw“. December 21st 2017
Joanne Seiff, CBC News. “Want to save the planet? Start by saying no to the plastic straw – Reducing waste and helping protect the environment can start with small changes“. July 08, 2017
Christian Britschgi, Reason. “California Considers $1,000 Fine for Waiters Offering Unsolicited Plastic Straws“. January 25, 2018
Ieva Lucs, CBC News. “‘Tiny trash’ a big problem for Canada’s shorelines – Over 330,000 pieces of tiny plastic and foam were collected along shorelines last year“. February 23, 2018