Moving Towards Sustainability: Why the Plastic Drinking Straw Signals a Starting Point

by on July 20th, 2010

Even though I consider myself fairly low impact in most of my everyday practices, giving up the plastic straw was an oversight I didn’t finally address until fairly recently. I had been on the way to weaning myself slowly off of excess waste: bringing my own tupperware to restaurants to pack leftovers (and simply not eating out as much), refusing paper and plastic bags in favor of my own canvas ones, and bringing my own reusable mugs and cutlery in my bag as part of a permanent carry-along item, along with my wallet, keys, and the ever-present pen & paper that always is on a self-identified writer’s person.

But as for straws…well, when did my vendetta against them begin in earnest? I had, these past few years, intermittenly refused them at restaurants, though it didn’t bother me so much if I forgot to or not (which I often did). If they still adorned my glass, I took it in stride and shrugged it off. I don’t eat meat, rarely drive and hang-dry my clothes, so I have done my part…there are so much bigger things to worry about, right?

Last year, I attended the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Madison, Wisconsin. During the evenings, there were small informal dinner meet-ups. As such informal talks do, this discussion for the meet-up I joined weaved and bobbed between the very serious (our potential imminent extinction) to the mundane, to abstract esoteric thought and even gender arguments (are women more environmental than men?). And then, very simply, one of my colleagues picked up a straw out of his glass to prove a point of how prolifigately wasteful we humans can be.

“Do we really need these?” he asked, the offending straw pinched between his thumb and forefinger. Indeed, we don’t, and we all nodded and stared at the offenders that took up residence in all of our own drink glasses, shaking our heads in shame…

I wish I could say from then on, I ardently objected to the straw, but it wasn’t a strong enough motivator to make me kick the habit for good. Like most people, I sometimes need a visual cue, often something strongly visceral, before I can really change a bad behavior (or even come to really understand the consequences of a societal behavior), and this was no exception.

That visual cue came only a month or so later, while I was perusing an article in either Discover or National Geographic on the phenomenon of plastic waste in our ocean, which tends to aggregate into large patches that come to resemble evil science fiction creatures. I turned a page and then–BAM!–a picture of a biopsied duck, its belly gorged with remnants of our plastic waste, mostly drinking straws. It hit my own stomach like a sucker punch, crept into my cranium and stuck there. It gave me a bad dream.

Ducks don’t eat straws because they are dumb. Bits of plastic straws, especially glimmering in the obscuring underwater view, resemble the iridiscent fish that comprise many a seabird’s savory meals. And are the ducks really so dumb to think that there would be fish in the ocean as opposed to our garbage?

A similar thing happens with our plastic bags, that we so often see dancing on the streets in the wind (as so poetically portrayed in the movie “American Beauty”) that almost always eventually drift into our oceans, lakes and rivers: sea mammals like seals and whales mistake them for jellyfish (also the same fate of most of the balloons we find romantic as we set them “free” into the sky at the peak of their buoyancy, seemingly forgetting or denying that they are inevitably destined to deflate and litter elsewhere out of our sight).

Most of the animals who swallow our plastic waste won’t immediately choke to death, but rather the bag will take up residence in their GI tract, where it will slowly but surely strangle their disgestive organs. Just because you are good about throwing away your trash into a can, does not mean it stays out of the ocean either: storms and winds cause a lot of trash to migrate, the smaller the plastic item (straws), the more likely it will end up elsewhere, usually someplace wet.

If I seem to be making too much of a big deal about one little straw, consider this: in the United States we discard of HUNDREDS OF BILLIONS OF STRAWS EVERY YEAR! Think of that number. Think of how many straws you might have even blown through this week. Most likely, in your lifetime, the amount of straws you threw out could build several makeshift homes in developing countries. The drinking straws I am decrying are also made of PLASTIC, and are a direct product of the petrochemical (translation: oil and oil refinery) industry, an enormous market, one large outlet of which exists on the Gulf Coast.

By supporting plastic, we are also supporting continued oil production and dependence. Not to mention, as a product made of petrochemicals, straws and other plastics are chock-full of known carcinogens like Bisphenol A (BPA), that leech both into our drinks through straws and into the ocean when they wind up there as waste. This is something those with young kids might especially want to consider when offering their children another sippy straw-equipped drink box.

But the biggest question is: what are they good for?

I mean, straws were something that didn’t really come into vogue until a few decades ago. Before that, we lived well without them. For the bigger environmental choices, like driving, we can argue that we sometimes NEED to do it–that because of the way our society is structured, we sometimes simply can’t get from point A to point B without getting into a car–and if point B is a hospital or a job, what choice do we have? Even the most adamant of the ecologically-conscious occasionally drive. They do it not because they are hypocrites but because fully abstaining from driving requires a larger infrastructual change that extends way beyond what we can just grasp with our personal choices, and many of us simply can’t afford the more efficient or sustainable alternatives.

But none of this can be said about the straw. In almost every situation but a couple (say, you have a handicap that prevents you from having mobile use of your hands and arms), they are nothing but frivolous and contrived conveniences, so small by itself, but so much a part of a larger desctructive whole–how much smaller (or even non-existent) would these ocean plastic patches be if we went sans straws and other superfluous plastic items (utensils, cups, etc.)?

Unlike car culture, our plastic culture is subject to a paradigm shift that can be instigated more from the bottom up than the top down: personal choice trumps political will here. That is why straws are in fact the ultimate symbol of both our profound tendency towards being needlessly wasteful, as well as our extreme potential towards achieving a more sustainable society through our smaller personal choices. And, unlike the automobile, more sustainable alternatives (namely reusable straws made of non-cancerous materials or disposable straws made of biodegradable material) are affordable.

This is one way we can change which won’t hurt us at all.

To view my complete article about straws and to find out about what you can do, please visit my blog.

Laura Kiesel