- Kent Kallberg via the David Suzuki Foundation
Of all the plastic products we use and take for granted, plastic drinking straws are among the most unnecessary. Designed to be used once and discarded, their only real purpose is to keep your mouth from touching a glass or ice. It made more sense in the days when contaminated vessels were more of an issue.
Now, there’s a movement to get people and businesses to ditch the straws. It may not seem like a big deal, but it is. In the U.S. alone, people discard 500 million straws every day, or more than 180 billion a year. That’s about 1.4 million
Drinking straws have a long history and weren’t always a big problem. The first ones were made from straw, or any
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
Plastic straws are now ubiquitous. Whether you’re ordering a takeout drink, cold coffee beverage, bar cocktail or glass of water in a restaurant, you’ll likely get a plastic straw unless you request your drink without it. And you should. As a Treehugger article notes, they don’t biodegrade, they’re difficult to recycle, they leach toxic chemicals into the ground and they can end up in oceans. Often, they’re incinerated, which puts toxins into the air.
Numerous campaigns have sprung up to get people to forgo drinking straws—or at least to use less environmentally damaging alternatives. Some restaurants have stopped automatically putting them in drinks, and others are using compostable straws, but most still offer plastic. International spirits company Bacardi has joined with the Surfrider Foundation for a “no-straw movement” as part of its Good Spirited: Building a Sustainable Future program. Surfrider, which has led campaigns against plastic bags, discarded cigarette butts and other ocean threats, has a “Straws Suck” campaign that encourages businesses to get rid of straws. In doing so, bars, restaurants and stores can save money as well as reduce environmental impacts.
As for alternatives, several companies sell
According to the anti-straw group the Last Plastic Straw, 80 to 90 per cent of marine debris is plastic, and as much as 80 percent of that came from plastics discarded on land. Researchers estimate eight million tonnes of plastic garbage enter the oceans from land every year. Plastic straws are among the top 10 litter items picked up during beach cleanups, with thousands picked up every year. Cigarette butts are the most numerous items picked up, with plastic bottles and caps, food wrappers and bags also in the top 10.
Avoiding plastic straws won’t save the oceans or the world on its own, but as we’ve seen with plastic bags and public
———Science Matters is a weekly column on issues related to science and the environment from David Suzuki, written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington. Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.