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Clutching At Straws

Publishing Date : 10 July, 2017

Stuart White
The World in Black-N-White

Last night at a restaurant in Gaborone I ordered a diet coke which, when it was delivered, was presented with a plastic straw. My dinner guest was horrified and proceeded to throw some shock-and-awe plastic pollutant statistics this way in order to enlighten me on the negative impact my consumer behaviour has.

Of the eight million tons of plastic trash that flow every year into the world’s oceans, the plastic drinking straw, this small, slender tube, utterly unnecessary for most beverage consumption, is at the centre of a growing environmental campaign aimed at convincing people to stop using them to help save the oceans – and I had not got the memo.


A few years ago like me you may have seen the eight-minute video of a four-inch section of straw being removed from a Costa Rican sea turtle’s nostril. The video is painful to watch, and has been viewed more than 11 million times on you tube. I have now seen it a few times as it has been replayed recently on SKY news alongside coverage of sharks and other marine life being dissected to reveal masses of plastic waste inside their stomachs.

Despite this I have not changed my behaviour and it’s not because I am fond of straws – I rarely use them and although I certainly never ask for one,  I never not ask either – and therein lies the point that I wish to make. “If you have the opportunity to make this choice and not to use a plastic straw, this can help keep this item off our beaches and raise awareness on plastic in the ocean,” says Jemma Jambeck, the University of Georgia engineering professor whose ground-breaking 2015 study was the first measurement of how much plastic debris enters the ocean every year. “And if you can make this one choice, maybe you can do even more.”


Except for people with medical needs, straws are not needed to consume beverages or water.  It is estimated that Americans use 500 million straws daily and citizen activists, my dinner guest being one, want to shrink that number. As it stands, being small and lightweight, straws often never make it into recycling bins; the evidence of this failure is clearly visible on any beach.

And while straws may amount to only a tiny fraction of ocean plastic, their size and shape make them one of the most insidious polluters because they entangle marine animals and are consumed by fish. Straws are the latest on an expanding list of individual plastic products being banned, taxed, or boycotted in an effort to curb seaborne plastic trash before it outweighs fish, a calculation projected to come true by 2050, according to one study.


Last year, California became the first state in the US to ban plastic bags, joining a host of nations that already do so (Kenya, China, Bangladesh, Rwanda, and Macedonia). France has not only banned bags, it has become the first country to also ban plastic plates, cups, and utensils, effective from 2020. San Francisco banned polystyrene, including Styrofoam cups and food containers, packaging peanuts, and beach toys. And in Rhode Island, the release of celebratory balloons is being targeted by activists, after almost 2,200 balloons were picked up on the shores of Aquidneck Island in the last four years.


Naturally, the plastics industry opposes bans at every turn. Bag manufacturers have persuaded lawmakers in Florida, Missouri, Idaho, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Indiana to pass legislation outlawing the bag bans, but that’s a topic for another argument on corporate greed versus global survival; and with the way the US is going under the Trump administration who knows if all of this goes backwards instead of progressing.

And in this vein, Keith Christman Director for plastic markets for the American Chemistry Council, says they will fight the banning of plastic straws but, what sets the anti-straw campaign apart from other efforts—and why the anti-straw campaign may succeed—is that activists are not seeking to change laws or regulations. They are merely asking consumers to change their habits and say no to straws.


Linda Booker, a North Carolina filmmaker, whose documentary, ‘Straws’, is making the rounds of the spring film festival circuit in the United States, says the turtle video, in part, inspired her to take on straws as a film project. She interviewed the scientists and included them in her film.  “I believe a lot of the catalyst for these straw campaigns was the video of the straw in the turtle’s nose,” she says.  

My thinking is that I guess part of the problem is that people see straws as insignificant and unimportant. I saw the turtle thing but never objected when a can would be provided with a straw. I try to make sure that when I go to the supermarket I take by environment friendly bag and resist buying plastic bottled water but is it enough as I provide plastic water bottles in droves to clients who visit our offices for fear that we may offend them if we offer water from a purifier – so I may threaten the marine life just to keep my clients happy and free of offence.

Many times people are overwhelmed by the bigness of the problem and often give up says an actor and activist Christopher Griener. “We need something achievable for everyday humans. The challenge is if we can get rid of plastic straws, let’s start there. Then we can move on from there.” 

Here’s a thought. There is a succinct old saying in English which goes ‘Don’t do as I do, just do as I say’, so maybe I need to put my morals where my mouthpiece is and offer my guests tap water in a straw-less glass (even clear glass is green!). And I would like to challenge you to resist taking straws, specifically asking waiters not to bring them and share this message or is this too much to ask or am I just clutching at straws?



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