Photo by Lauren St Clair (Photo Editor)
Photo by Lauren St Clair (Photo Editor)

A movement to ban plastic drinking straws has been garnering widespread attention in Canada and across the world, particularly after Starbucks announced its initiative to phase out all plastic straws from their 28,000 stores by the year 2020. For many, this response appears to make sense; according to Greenpeace Canada, Canadians generate approximately 3.25 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, and the federal government estimates that by the year 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. Furthermore, more than eight million tonnes of plastic flow into the ocean every year, worldwide. This poses a serious problem that won’t improve without a course of action – and for some, this action is obvious: Don’t want to be responsible for the decline of our marine life? #StopSucking.

Unfortunately, as with many problems, the solution is not all black and white. As cities and companies take steps to move further and further away from straws, few have stopped to consider the drawbacks and negative consequences of the well-intentioned movement. Namely, the elderly and those living with disabilities that make it difficult or impossible to drink without the aid of a straw will now be burdened with a new obstacle. Not to mention social stigma and criticism, if their disability isn’t clearly apparent.

But first, how did we get here?

Although plastic straws are a fairly new invention, humans have been using hollowed out cylindrical tubes for thousands of years to aid in drinking. According to National Geographic, “Ancient Sumerians, one of the first societies known to brew beer, submerged long, thin tubes made from precious metals into large jars to reach the liquid sitting below fermentation byproducts.” However, it wasn’t until 1888 that the first patent for a drinking straw was filed by a man named Marvin Stone. As cited by the Smithsonian Institute, he was enjoying a mint julep one day in the early 1880s, when the piece of rye grass he had been using as a straw started to disintegrate. Knowing he could create something better, he wrapped paper around a pencil, glued it together, and the paper drinking straw was born.

Almost fifty years later in the 1930s, inventor Joseph Friedman contributed his own modifications to the straw, giving it the ability to bend. He had noticed his daughter struggling to drink her milkshake through Stone’s straight paper straw, and decided to solve the problem by inserting a screw into the straw, wrapping the shape with dental floss, and removing the screw. With grooves, the straw could now bend without breaking, allowing improved ease of drinking and a new benefit to those who otherwise couldn’t consume beverages without assistance. It is therefore unsurprising that hospitals were among the first establishments to use bendable drinking straws, as they allowed patients to drink while lying in bed. It wasn’t until decades later that they made their way into restaurants and fast food joints across the country.

So why the shift to plastic?

Plastic was first invented in 1870 by John Wesley Hyatt. It was made from celluloid (a material that imitated animal products like ivory), and later led to the creation of bakelite, nylon, and acrylic. Due to its cheapness and durability, it first gained traction during the second world war, and stuck around afterwards as a lifeline for manufacturers in the growing demand for cheap consumer goods. Since plastic straws were cheaper to produce and far more durable than paper, manufacturers quickly added them to their fleet of ever-increasing throw-away products. Throughout the 1960s, manufacturing infrastructure was created to mass-produce plastic drinking straws, and new renditions like crazy straws were added in the 1980s. Sanitation was a further driving force in the switch to plastic, as these single use items come with the added benefit of cleanliness and healthfulness. According to vice president of plastics for the American Chemical Society, Steve Russell, “in many cases, these plastics provide sanitary conditions for food, beverages, and personal care.”

Why does this matter? Is my twisty unicorn straw really going to kill the sea turtles?

Like any single use item, a straw that’s used to slurp up a piña colada and then promptly thrown in the trash certainly isn’t doing the planet any favours. Due to their thin material, plastic straws can easily break down into tiny plastic particles, and are also often difficult to recycle in certain facilities. Furthermore, according to a 2017 study by the Ocean Conservatory, a marine environmental advocacy group, straws were ranked the seventh most common piece of trash collected by cleanup crews on global beaches. Even if consumers are diligent in disposing of their straws, they can still be blown out of trash cans or landfills, sometimes resulting in an ultimate destination in the ocean. Even straws that are thrown into recycling bins with good intentions can be blown away or be too light for the recycling process.

Popular Science claims that there are five gigantic masses of trashed plastic littering the earth’s oceans. In particular, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered in 1997 by a man named Charles Moore, claiming a space of over 1.6 million square kilometers between Hawaii and California. Notably, this floating collection of discarded plastic comprises an estimated 79,000 tonnes of litter and debris. Algae often grows on the garbage, making it easy for marine animals to mistake it for food. Plastic is becoming so common in our oceans that it is often found in the stomachs of whales, birds, and fish. Even sea turtles are feeling the brunt: the video of marine biologist Christine Figgener and her team removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose in August 2015 went viral this year, perhaps sparking the urgency in the recent anti-straw movement.

The evidence is clear that plastic is polluting our oceans, and something obviously has to change. But how much are straws really to blame?

A straw ban is currently being widely promoted as a necessary first step in reducing plastic waste, but what do the numbers indicate? As mentioned earlier, eight million tonnes of plastic flow into the earth’s oceans every year – but straws are responsible for only 0.025% of that. Additionally, in a recent study by the environmental group Better Alternatives Now, plastic straws and stir sticks make up 7% of the number of plastic items along California’s coastline, compared to plastic bags (9%) and plastic bottle caps (17%). However, in comparing these numbers to the 0.025% that plastic straws make up in the ocean, a study by Jambeck Research Group concludes that the straws’ buoyancy and lightness cause them to be overrepresented on the coast.

In a Canadian study, Loblaws Canada and the World Wildlife Federation sponsored a clean-up of Canada’s ocean shores, finding plastic straws to make up less than 2% of beach waste. The study found there to be twice as many bottle caps as straws, and ten times as many cigarette butts.

If straws only make up 0.025% of the oceans’ plastic waste, what’s the major culprit?

According to a recent study by Ocean Cleanup, it is estimated that 46% of plastic waste in the oceans’ largest floating garbage patch comes from discarded commercial fishing nets. Another large portion is attributed to crates, ropes, baskets, floats and traps – all items which are related to the fishing industry as well. Another 20% comes from debris washed away from the shores of Japan during the 2011 tsunami. Straws are such an insignificant contributor to overall plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean that the report makes no mention of them.

Unfortunately, there is little that the average person can do on their own to help cut the amount of fishing nets and gear polluting our oceans. Therefore, even though straws make up only a small portion of ocean waste, they are being targeted as the focus of environmental campaigns. This is partially due to the fact that, for most able-bodied people, eliminating plastic straws is an easy contribution that doesn’t require a drastic change. There are multiple straw alternatives available, including bamboo, paper, metal, glass, or no straw at all.

Giving up straws seems so easy, and even if it’s minimal, at least it’s still making a positive impact on the environment. What’s wrong with having a total straw ban?

Even though eliminating straws comes without consequence for most able-bodied people, for a large portion of our community straws are both useful and necessary. Numerous disability groups have been voicing their concerns over a straw ban, as it threatens their ability to consume beverages in a self-supporting and dignified way. Additionally, in situations such as health care, straws and other single use plastics are necessary in terms of sterility and functionality. Total elimination of plastic drinking straws from stores and restaurants changes them from a consumer item to a medical tool, which in turn drives up the price, putting yet another burden on those who need them the most.

While it is true that many straw alternatives are available, not all of them are necessarily suitable. Of course, all people are different, and all disabilities are different too, but a broad range of problems with straw alternatives raise a need for concern. For example, metal straws can get extremely hot while drinking beverages like tea or coffee, and can cause lip burns. Paper straws become a choking hazard when soggy, and are inefficient for people with limited jaw control because they are easy to bite through. Glass straws are also dangerous for those with a disability that causes them to clench their teeth, which could result in glass shards and cuts. Silicone straws don’t hold their bend, and make it difficult for those who need to lie down while drinking; they also need to be cleaned immediately after each use, which can pose a problem for someone who is travelling or has limited hand mobility.

Aside from participating in an anti-straw movement, what are some simple and feasible ways for the average person to reduce plastic consumption?

There are thousands of plastic items that can be targeted, that have suitable alternatives and don’t function as accessibility items. For example, aim to use reusable produce and grocery bags. Give up gum – which is often made of synthetic rubber. Pack your lunches in reusable containers and bags. Purchase foods like pasta, rice, nuts and cereal from bulk bins, filling a reusable container or bag. And if you’re able to, bring a reusable mug to your favourite coffee shop. Starbucks, Blenz and Tim Hortons all offer discounts for bringing your own travel mug, which over time adds up to decent savings.

Although the future may seem bleak, environmental groups are working diligently to care for our earth’s oceans. Ocean Cleanup, founded by Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat, uses a large floating system to collect plastic from the water. Officially launched on September 8, 2018, off the coast of San Francisco, the device spans 600 meters, and takes advantage of wind, waves and currents, allowing both the plastic and the device to be carried by the current. Currently targeting the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the system will be able to work on the same ocean currents as the plastic, allowing it to move to areas with the largest concentration of waste. The project estimates the theoretical cleanup time of the ocean to be reduced from millennia to decades, with the ocean estimated to be plastic-free by the year 2050.

What’s the bottom line?

Until the development of a straw that can function as well as a plastic bendable straw, a total ban is not an option. Perhaps the best solution, for the time being, is for businesses to have both plastic and biodegradable straws on hand, and ask consumers for their preference. That way, those who don’t require a plastic straw are able to opt out, and those who require them can still drink with ease and dignity. As long as we have inclusivity and accessibility, no one has to suck.