The Pollution Paradox

The last straw is not plastic

By Amanda King


In addition to the stimulating social game of violently debating politics and religion, Americans tend to enjoy sporadically finding an environmental issue to rage over for a short but intense period.

Recently, this imminent environmental concern has been the use of plastic straws. By recent, I refer to this past summer when every major social media platform had users on a crusade to convince followers to buy their reusable metal straws.

If you are like me and don’t really use plastic straws often enough to justify the risk in ordering from a random influencer on Instagram—or are maybe just smart enough not to—you probably just scrolled past these silly advertisements, even the ones that included their own portable carrying case!

By far, however, the most enthusiastic commonality between every advertisement I saw was the tagline: “Save the Turtles!”

So while I was seeing dozens of these ads every day, it occurred to me that we have much larger ecological catastrophes looming. Why then was it straws that were trending? What about the unassuming and often necessary cylindrical tube was suddenly so bad that we as a society needed to immediately rush to grab our credit cards and order some reusable straw?

I assumed the answer simply had something to do with the plastic element. After all, even Starbucks was now against the use of straws, choosing to ditch their plastic straws in favor of lids (lids made of even more plastic than the straws so riddle me that).

But this didn’t really explain the correlation between plastic straws and dead turtles.

The involvement of turtles in the anti-straw movement traces back to a single video filmed by marine biologist Christine Figgener and her research team. The video, showing a graphic straw extraction from a turtle’s nose, is understandably heartbreaking to watch.

 And though it took three years for it to go viral, by God did it explode among America’s population. So we, as Americans, did what we have been trained by social media platforms to do: we demanded a change.

This demand was aimed at large corporations—some of which rose to meet the public outrage, like the aforementioned Starbucks. Elsewhere, Seattle became the first city to ban plastic straws completely, and most restaurants in the U.S began instructing wait staff to withhold straws unless specifically asked for by customers.

While the new anti-plastic straw movement is clearly an environmental positive, I can’t help but wonder how much the use of plastic straws is really hurting our planet.

Think about it: what harm is it really to drink liquid through a plastic tube?

The answer is none because simply using a straw isn’t the real issue. It’s where that straw goes after you’re done using it. A metal straw could get stuck inside a turtle’s nose just as easily as a plastic one if you throw it into the ocean!

The United States alone produces approximately more than 260 million tons of trash each year, about 13 percent of which is plastic waste. Even Figgener admits that plastic straws make up around four percent of the nine million tons of annual plastic pollution found in oceans.

Given that this is not by any means a majority of and definitely not the most dangerous type of garbage to make its way to the world’s oceans, I think it is safe to say that refusing a straw from your waiter the next time you go out to eat won’t save anyone.

The obvious environmental problem is not the use of plastic straws, or even plastic in general—it’s how they are disposed of.

Waste disposal methods vary across different countries, and even different areas of the U.S. require certain considerations.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s archive, what little percentage of our garbage that is reusable gets recycled, while everything else either goes to landfills—which often drains into oceans—or is subject to combustion—which entails an entirely new set of brutal, lethal impacts to our atmosphere.

And that’s just America. Other countries have even worse disposal methods: China, for example, has little to no processes in place for garbage disposal. Revealed in a CNBC Original documentary, trash is either littered all over the streets or loaded into trucks that dump just outside the city of Beijing—and commonly are looted.

But all hope isn’t lost yet: Sweden has developed a waste-to-energy solution for garbage wherein it is burned to power electricity and heating, while the remaining ash is recycled into metals used for construction. This method has become so effective, in fact, that Sweden now has to import trash from neighboring European countries, as per “The New York Times.”

While it’s great that everyone wants to eliminate plastic straws to prevent further harm to animals and the environment, there are more effective ways to protect our Earth. Figgener herself has made it clear that she never intended the video she made to become the be-all-end-all motivation for environmental improvement. In fact, she even calls it “a good place to start fighting ocean waste.”

 I’m still not entirely behind the anti-plastic movement, as I don’t see the elimination of all plastic materials realistically feasible.

But even I can admit that this plastic straw craze has opened the door for a more in-depth conversation about our waste disposal system—a necessary discussion if we want the planet to survive us.

So the next time someone tries to shame you for using a plastic straw, wisely remind them of the bigger environmental problems plaguing our Earth.

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