By Cee Cee Huffman
A thirsty child opens his lunch box and rips the straw from his juice box. A barista calls a name, slides an iced coffee across the counter and places a straw on top. A young waiter reaches into their black canvas apron and tosses a handful of white, paper-wrapped plastic straws on the table.
Without a second thought, they rip off the wrappers and enjoy their drinks.
Every day, Americans use 500 million plastic straws, but few stop to think about what happens to their straws once their cups are empty.
“You take something and you throw it where? Away,” environmental artist Bryant Holsenbeck said. “We live in away. People think away is a magic place, and it’s not.”
If a straw makes it to the trash, it’s picked up and driven to a landfill. Unable to be recycled, it will spend the next several years slowly breaking down. If it gets lost along the way, it becomes part of the 7.5 percent of the total plastic in our environment.
Plastic straws are the fifth most common plastic product found in our oceans while plastic itself is the most common marine debris found in our oceans. This debris is made up of single-use plastics, or plastics that are only used once before being thrown away, like grocery bags, water bottles and straws.
“The straw is just that single object that so many of us have encountered all our lives,” filmmaker Linda Booker said. “So, we never really stop to think about it.”
Sometimes fish might encounter microplastics, or pieces of plastic products the size of a sesame seed and mistake it for dinner. Though harmful to the fish, it could also be harmful to you if that fish ends up on your plate.
From Rye to Oil-Based Plastic
In the 1880s, Marvin Stone was drinking his mint julep through a natural rye grass straw when it began disintegrating. A manufacturer of paper cigarette holders, he fastened together his own paper straw by wrapping strips of paper around a pencil and gluing them together.
He patented his invention in 1888 and began producing it in 1890. In a matter of time, people everywhere were drinking from Stone’s paper straws.
Over 50 years later, corporations discovered oil-based plastic straws were cheaper to mass-produce. Plastic straw quickly became the new norm, and they weren’t going anywhere.
Linda Booker is the director and producer of “Straws,” a documentary that details the history of and danger that plastic straws pose to our environment.
Booker said she remembers the moment she started noticing that straws were everywhere.
“Sometimes they get used, a lot of times they don’t,” Booker said. “We just go about our day and these objects are going into our drinks sort of vicariously, whether we ask for them or not.”
The Turtle that Started a Movement
She said people started paying attention when marine biologist Christine Figgener posted a video of a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose online in Aug. 2015.
Figgener and her team wrestled with the turtle, holding its head still while they struggled to pull a deteriorating straw out of its nostril. The video received over 34 million views on YouTube, and the turtle quickly became the poster child of the anti-straw movement.
However, Booker said that even after becoming aware of the problem, it’s still difficult to understand the scope.
Blair Bowden, a senior studying marine science at UNC-Chapel Hill, became more conscious of the straws she encountered when she took marine biology.
Bowden said she found the Stop Sucking campaign for a straw-less ocean and has been telling all of her friends and family about it since.
“Even though it’s not a cure-all for the environment, it’s a small step in the right direction,” Bowden said.
Booker said plastic straws are a relatable and simple way to tackle the bigger plastic problem. For now, she’s glad people are learning about it.
“It’s kind of like, shocking,” Booker said. “When you really think about exactly how prevalent it really is, and how many of them there are, and how they’re never going to go away. It can really be kind of scary.”
As scary as straws are, they’ve become difficult to avoid or live without while other similar single-use plastics are everywhere.
Scrapping the Straw
Having created art with recycled materials for decades, Holsenbeck wanted to see if she could go a year without single-use plastics. She documented her journey in her book, “The Last Straw: A Continuing Quest for Life Without Disposable Plastic.”
“It’s made to use once and last forever,” Holsenbeck said. “That’s a bad equation, right?”
Holsenbeck said it was a challenge to find alternatives to her daily, plastic wrapped items, but now she knows where to find sustainable alternatives. Today, she has accepted some single-use plastics back into her life but avoids them when possible.
Reducing Your Plastic Use
Blair Pollock, solid waste manager for Orange County, said there are three simple things you can do to reduce your use plastics without completely cutting them out.
First, reusable water bottles.
Pollock said carrying a water bottle or canteen saves you the cost of buying bottled water while also being 47 percent more energy efficient.
“There’s savings to you immediately as an individual and there’s planetary savings,” Pollock said. “That’s probably the most obvious and best economically.”
Pollock said for the average shopper, carrying reusable shopping bags in your car is also an easy and effective way to avoid plastic. Lastly, of course, Pollock said to reject plastic straws.
If you find that you really need or miss your straw, try buying a reusable straw and carrying it with you. However, you likely won’t miss it since for many, drinking from straws is habitual but unnecessary said Pollock.
“Once you begin to change your habits, it just becomes embedded with you,” Pollock said.
Pollock said you have to be quick-on-the-draw to stop your barista or waiter from handing you a plastic straw. Still, it’s one of the easiest things you can do to reduce the number of single-use plastics in your life.
Edited by Diane Adame