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How Plastic Straws Became the Face of Today’s Environmental Movement

By now, it’s fair to say that almost all of us have noticed some of the recent commotion about plastic straws. Plastic straws have been criticized for being wasteful and unnecessary, as well as damaging to the natural environment and wildlife within it. They generally cannot be recycled, but contribute to our ever-increasingly full landfills along with other single-use plastic products. In some cases, plastic straws end up in our oceans, where they harm wildlife.

A viral video, that grew the popularity of anti-straw campaigns shows a sea turtle that is bleeding from a straw stuck in its nose. In addition to these types of threats, wildlife can also be harmed by microplastics. Plastic does not decompose or biodegrade, but instead breaks into smaller pieces, which break into smaller pieces, and eventually are classified as microplastics. According to Ocean Conservancy, plastic straws can take 200 years to break down. During this time, they can be swallowed by, and harm, wildlife. In addition, bioaccumulation ensures that much of the seafood we eat will contain higher and higher amounts of harmful chemicals as this pollution continues, and negatively impact human health.

Following all the information gathered and presented about plastic straws, there has been inspiring levels of fairly mainstream public concern and action regarding this issue which is often rare with environmental issues. Though – as usual – when a topic or idea enters mainstream consciousness, it begins to face a lot of criticism along with the positive attention. According to Ocean Conservancy, plastic straws are one of the most common items found during beach cleanups. However, many others have noted that straws are actually a very small part of our overall plastic problem. National Geographic reports that straws make up only “0.025 percent” of the plastic in our oceans. It’s important to note that there are many other kinds of plastic waste that are more significant than straws, which we should be paying attention to and taking action on. In a different article, National Geographic reports that the famous Great Pacific Garbage Patch is actually “mostly abandoned fishing gear,” contrary to popular belief. Fishing nets are often thrown into the ocean because it is “cheaper and easier,” than disposing of them properly, according The Guardian’s article on ghost gear. Perhaps taking action on the many unsustainable practices of the fishing industry, through boycott or regulation, would be more effective than anti-straw campaigns.

So then, why all the talk about straws? Well, for the purpose of talk. Straws are being used a symbol, or martyr even, to garner the attention of the public and introduce many people to the dangers of plastic waste. For most people, straws are highly unnecessary and easy to stop using. This gives little resistance to action, and allows the ball to keep rolling on discussing  plastic products which require a little more effort to cut out. While I encourage anyone reading to continue research on more harmful plastic waste, including fishing gear, the irrefutable focus of the public is on plastic straws.

Not only have concerned individuals been taking a significant amount of action towards the  plastic straw problem, but entire cities and companies have started to take action too. The approach of several cities, including Seattle, has been to implement a ban on plastic straws among vendors. News stories about straw bans were shared and celebrated across the internet, until opposition began to be vocalized. Members of the disabled community began to speak up about the insensitivity of plastic straw bans, noting that for many people, plastic straws are not a convenience, but a necessity. More sustainable alternatives to plastic straws are unsuitable for many people with disabilities, depending on their specific and unique conditions and struggles.

In addition, putting the responsibility on members of the disabled community to bring their own straws everytime they leave the house places an unfair burden and impossible expectation on a group of already-marginalized people. It reflects badly on the environmental movement to be so irresponsible. For these reasons and more, plastic straw bans have been regarded by many as an out of touch and short-sighted solution to the issue of plastic waste.

In order to make environmentalism a mainstream phenomenon that all people can identify with, it needs to represent and support all people.

Moving forward, our approaches to sustainability need to be considered in a holistic sense. We should be thinking of

  1. Campaigns that can raise the most awareness

  2. Focus on more critical areas

  3. Inclusion of all communities and all types of people in our movement

Amy is a freshman at Purdue in Exploratory Studies and hopes to transfer into Natural Resources and Environmental Science. Her favorite show is Wilfred, and she is still deeply upset with Netflix for taking it down. She likes vegan food, Lana del Rey, and her black cat Jessica.
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