Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Will banning plastic straws reduce waterway pollution? (WAMU, Washington, D.C.)

From NPR affiliate WAMU in Washington, D.C.,

Pardon WAMU's vulgar crass headline, below. As of July 25, 2018, Donald Trump is still President, and it's as if we're living in the future dystopia of the movie Idiocracy

Plastic Straws Suck. But Will Banning Them Make Waterways Less Polluted?
Jacob Fenston

A few hundred of the 4,026 plastic straws pulled from the Anacostia River during a single cleanup.

Jacob Fenston / WAMU

If you think about every piece of disposable plastic you use in a day, it adds up: packaging, food containers, bottles and cups. But lately, one particular type of plastic has been getting a lot of bad press: straws. Starbucks and Marriott have vowed to phase them out in the next year or two, a number of area restaurants have already stopped using them and local lawmakers are grappling with the issue. Why this fixation on straws?

A few feet from the Anacostia River, Emily Conrad shows off her collection of straws.

“In total there’s 4,026,” says Conrad, who works for the Anacostia Watershed Society. “We did actually count every single one.”

The straws fill up several big buckets, separated by color: two buckets of McDonald’s straws, white with distinctive yellow and red stripes; a bucket of bright red straws from 7-11; a bucket of orange and pink ones from Dunkin Donuts.

“And the green ones are from Starbucks primarily,” says Conrad.

How many plastic straws can you spot? On the Anacostia River.
Jacob Fenston / WAMU

All these straws are from one river cleanup, which took place last Earth Day. It’s a lot of straws. But it’s tiny in comparison to the total amount of mostly plastic rubbish that volunteers pulled out of the Anacostia that day.

“We got about 25 tons of trash, and 11 tons of recycling material,” says Conrad.

So why even talk about a few buckets of straws, rather than instead of that other 36 tons of stuff?

“Plastic straws are really kind of like the gateway to rethinking about single-use plastics,” Conrad says.

Hay! It’s A Straw!

The bar at Founding Farmers is packed during lunch hour, but on a recent afternoon, only a few of the beverages had straws in them.

“Looks like I see one, I see two straws,” says restaurant owner Dan Simons, surveying the scene. “I think one’s in a cocktail and one’s in an iced tea.” The restaurant uses paper straws or hay straws (which come with a warning for people sensitive to gluten, since they’re made of wheat stems).

Simons has been waging a quiet war against plastic straws for the past decade. He’s never used plastic straws at the restaurant.

“I saw straws as a single-use plastics topic that we could win,” he explains.

At first it was a lonely fight. Then, in 2015, there was one particular video that went viral.

The video shows a sea turtle in Costa Rica with something stuck in its nose. Marine biologists are using pliers to pull it out. At first they think it’s some sort of worm. Then they realize: “It’s a frickin’ straw up her frickin’ nostril!”

The video is disturbing and bloody, and it’s been watched on YouTube 31 million times. Simons and others say this video was the beginning of the current wave of activism focused on straws.

In recent months, Simons has been trying to get more D.C.-area restaurants to ditch plastic straws, starting a coalition called Our Last Straw. So far, about 75 local businesses have signed on. There are similar national and international campaigns that have taken off on social media. Across the world, close to 2,000 restaurants and institutions have voluntarily stopped using plastic straws.

Fish With Your Plastic?

There’s good reason to be worried about plastic pollution.

“By 2050, there will be more pounds of plastic in the ocean than fish,” says Julie Lawson, director of the D.C.’s Mayor’s Office of the Clean City. Lawson has spent her career fighting trash pollution, including founding Trash Free Maryland. The effort is not just about saving sea creatures. Plastics never go away, instead breaking down into tinier and tinier bits. In waterways and oceans, those bits are ingested by fish and birds and other creatures, making their way into the human food chain.

A water sample from the North Atlantic. Julie Lawson uses the jar to show the impact of disposable plastic on the environment.
WAMU / Jacob Fenston

Lawson says that with all the anti-straw campaigns, more people are talking about the issue now than she’s ever heard before.

“If talking about straws gets more people into part of that conversation and into thinking about the solution and the roles that they play in being part of the solution, then we can start talking about other materials,” she says.

Americans do use — and throw away — a lot of straws. One often-repeated estimate is half a billion straws a day (although the origins of that number are dubious). While straws are mostly unnecessary, they may still be hard to give up.

“I’m just addicted to straws,” says Codi Wright, sipping an iced tea on a hot day outside a Starbucks in the Navy Yard neighborhood. She’s not happy Starbucks is phasing out plastic straws. “I’d rather drink out of a straw versus putting my mouth on the actual cup,” Wright says.

Disability rights groups have also pushed back on straw bans, pointing out that some people rely on them to drink. Businesses that are phasing out plastic straws say they will make the straws available for people who need them.

‘It Kind Of Fell Through The Cracks’

This month, Seattle got a lot of attention for becoming “the first major U.S. city to ban straws.”

That’s not quite accurate.

“Plastic straws are, right now in the District of Columbia, banned,” says D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3). Plastic straws were banned in the city four years ago, by the same legislation that outlawed styrofoam containers.

Alternatives to plastic straws, like ones made out of hay or paper, can be four to five times more expensive, according to Dan Simons. “Just reduce consumption by the equivalent amount, and you’re net-neutral on the cost,” he says.

The law banned food service ware that cannot be recycled or composted, effective January 2017. The legislation specifically listed non-recyclable, non-compostable straws among the banned items. Back then, however, people weren’t talking about straws so much. As a result, says Cheh, “It kind of fell through the cracks.”

The ban has never been enforced, and the city has no immediate plans to start cracking down. Several council members are supporting a new bill that would (again) explicitly ban plastic straws. Cheh is supporting it, though she admits it is redundant.

“It puts an exclamation point at the end of the sentence, it underlines it, it puts it in caps,” she says.

Even if the ban passes (again), and straws disappear from cold beverages across the land, it may not make a big dent in plastic pollution. After all, in the case of Starbucks, straws are being replaced by a lid made of more plastic. That lid is recyclable, but the vast majority of plastic never actually makes it to a recycling bin: only 9 percent of all plastic is recycled, according to one study.

FILED UNDER: DC, Environment, Local.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Honestly Idiocracy seems like the better alternative at this point.