A viral video showing a marine biologist removing a plastic straw from the nostril of a sea-turtle, while the hapless creature bled profusely, put the spotlight on these ubiquitous, disposable staples of the food-service industry. This was the first time much of the general public became aware of straws’ negative impact on wildlife and the environment. Soon after, plastic straw bans were enacted across the nation, and these were met with mixed responses. Proponents of a ban said this was a long overdue step in the right direction, whereas ban opponents said this was a knee-jerk reaction that would lead to widespread inconveniences.
Opponents of straw bans are correct in that bans will create inconveniences for some of the disabled who have difficulties drink from large cups without the aid of a bendable straw. However, the benefits of bans on plastic straws far outweigh the costs.
The most immediate benefit of a ban is the elimination of further input of plastic straws into the environment. This will translate to elimination of a major component of plastic contaminants in terms of number and mass. Among the 9 million tonnes of plastic waste that enters the ocean annually, straws contribute 2,000 tones, and straws account for 4% of the number of pieces of plastic waste in marine environments. Consequently, elimination of straws will lead to a cascade of benefits.
The most notable benefit of the cascade is a reduction in death and injury to wildlife due to choking or internal injury resulting from consumption of straws. The aforementioned video did not represent an isolated incident. The hazards imposed on animals by straws has been common knowledge among wildlife professionals for many years. So much so, that plastic straw bans were in effect at many major zoos years before the turtle video surfaced.
Additionally, the elimination of straws reduces environmental contamination and litter. Relatively recent research has found that not all plastics persist in the environment for centuries or decades. Plastic breakdown may occur in as little as one year, resulting in the release of toxic chemicals, including BPA (bisphenol A), into the ocean. The reduction in litter from straws will also result in cleaner beaches. Many reports have indicated straws are among the top ten most commonly encountered types of plastic litter found on beaches.
Finally, in addressing the inconveniences of straw bans, efforts to develop a better substitute for plastic straws may result in unforeseen innovations. This may even include development of a novel material that could lessen our dependence on non-biodegradable plastics.