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Photo Courtesy of Flickr / Bo Eide

The Last Straw: Will That Ever Happen?

It’s summer. And that means it’s beach season. There will be 17 beachgoers for every 100 meters in New England.

Wait, I got that wrong. Correction: there will be 17 cotton buds for every 100 meters of beach in England. At least that’s what the Marine Conversation Society recently found.

Findings such as these have led the UK government to introduce new restrictions on plastic straws, plastic drink stirrers, and plastic cotton buds.

You may recall a similar move from your very own beloved Boston College, though on a much smaller scale. They eliminated straws from the entire campus! Just kidding. They hid them right behind the cash registers, while also maintaining a distribution of plastic spoons, forks, and knives.
Of course, any step towards sustainability should be applauded, but is it enough?

This same question can be asked of America as a whole. The U.S. alone has been reported to use 500 million straws every single day. However, many major cities and companies have made plans to ban plastic straws. Starbucks announced that it would ban them from its stores by 2020. And various hotel companies, such as Marriot International and Hilton, have pledged to do the same.

Two questions come to the forefront of the conversation surrounding the eradication of (plastic) straw usage.

One, when will every city and company commit to this initiative? Many companies assert that they plan to eliminate straws, with no further explanation of when or how. Others, such as Hyatt, have announced “eco-friendly alternatives,” again, without specifying what those alternatives actually are.

Second, is this move even crucial? Researchers found that 4.8-12.7 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010. However, plastic straws make up only 0.025% of that. So, why are people pointing the finger at plastic straws, and is it worth it?

Chelsea Rochman of the University of Toronto explains this well: “Straws are kind of low-hanging fruit. They’re an easy win and that’s fantastic.”

Not only is there a question as to whether or not banning the plastic tubes we’ve undeniably grown attached to will help in a significant way, but there is a legitimate concern about the ban. Many people with disabilities rely upon plastic straws in their day-to-day lives. Alternatives such as paper straws and metal straws are sometimes perceived as impractical or can even pose safety threats.

So, there are some takeaways from this brief lesson on plastic straws. It may be crucial that plastic straws remain available upon request—without reason from the requester to respect their privacy. Plastic straws are one step in the right direction, but arguably a small step.

In fact, you would probably make more of an impact by using a reusable water bottle considering plastic bottle caps account for nearly 17% of plastics in the U.S. (compared to 7% from plastic straws).

In reality, banning plastic straws won’t save the planet. Instead, a reduction in plastic use by consumers should probably be paired with better waste disposal methods. Granted, we’re the ones who consume all of this plastic (and far too much of it), but there are greater influences responsible for allowing it to get there.