Unless you are great at staying away from the internet, which you aren’t if you’re reading this post, you have probably seen post after post about plastic straws. You may even have experienced drinking through the maligned paper straws that have begun to replace the plastic villain. Or maybe you are still wondering why you are seeing social media flooded with the evils of the plastic straw. Why, you may be asking, should straws matter so much and what about all the other plastic waste out there polluting our environment?
How it Started
Straws became the poster product for ocean waste after a series of events. One, that infamous video of a turtle with a cocktail straw up its nose went viral. Two, celebrity-backed organizations like Adrian Grenier with The Lonely Whale making straws their number one objective brought a lot of attention to the cause. And three, bloggers like Lauren Singer of Trash Is For Tossers got us all thinking about it realistically by swapping plastic straws for shiny, Instagramable, reusable metal straws.
The reality is, straws and other small single-use plastics, while recyclable in theory, are usually not actually recycled. They are small and get caught in the recycling equipment, often rendering a whole batch contaminated. They are also lightweight so they tend to blow off the top of garbage and recycling trucks, and into streets where they are washed into sewers and waterways, only to cause harm to the marine life that encounters them.
Why It’s Really Happening
While straws do not make up the greatest value of ocean plastics, they are good for is illustrating the greater problem by picking a single item and showing how prolific it has become. Activists using the straw as an example have successfully inspired straw and single-use plastics bans across the globe. However, many are fighting this legislation for a number of reasons including that straw bans are considered unfair to people with disabilities, or that parents feel like a straw is the only way to keep their child from spilling their beverage everywhere, or that some people just find it plain old offensive that a government is dictating what they can and cannot use.
Reduce and Reuse First
Ultimately, we find that the problems surrounding single-use plastics are rooted in consumer desire for convenience as well as miseducation around what is and is not recyclable. To begin with, most people are unfamiliar with the recycling process and often assume all plastic, all paper, and all metal is recyclable, usually throwing anything they think should recyclable into the blue bin. The industry even has a name for it: Wishcycling. To make things more complicated, recycling parameters change from city to city with each municipality accepting different kinds of products to recycle. And then you have the problem that even if it goes into the proper bin, there’s still a chance it will never get recycled and will end up in a landfill or waterway anyway. This is why today’s environmental influencers consistently reframe their message around reduce and reuse instead of recycling because recycling isn’t always a reliable system. This is especially true now that China and other nations that usually take our recyclables are now refusing to take it.
It makes us wonder: if customers don’t know how to recycle, and recycling practices differ across the globe, can companies be more responsible for educating them? Can they look beyond cradle to gate (a term for the life cycle of a product as long as it is in the hands of the manufacturer) to end of life, and find new ways to take products from cradle to cradle, developing a circular model where products are either taken back by the company, taken back by corporate partners, or compostable in a non-industrial setting? Recently, pilot programs like Loop and TerraCycle are beginning to tackle these questions. We believe that these pilots will not only show that it can be done, but that it is vital to adopt this practice in order to reduce environmental impacts and maintain a healthy economy.