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What Did the Plastic Straw Ban Really Do?

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Plastic has always been a major problem for the environment. Most of it isn’t biodegradable, meaning that plastic carelessly tossed aside could pose a hazard to animals for hundreds of years because it simply can’t break down. Most people are aware of the harm that plastic pollution poses, but the material is so commonly used that it’s difficult to just stop using everyday items that are made from plastic. These days, significant efforts have been made to reduce the amount of plastic used by consumers by banning plastic straws. States and cities all over the country have implored this tactic to eliminate as much plastic as possible from affecting our ecosystem, but did the plastic straw really accomplish what it set out to do?

In 2011, a 9-year-old boy named Milo Cress from Vermont noticed that restaurants would serve straws with every drink regardless of if the customer wanted one or not. He and his mom brought their concerns to the owner of Leunig’s Bistro and Café in Burlington, and the establishment became one of the first restaurants to stop offering plastic straws. The mother-son duo did some research and found that around 500 million straws were used and thrown out daily in the U.S. This further propelled the anti-straw movement forward.

Perhaps the most impactful moment in the anti-plastic straw movement was when a video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw lodged in its nostril went viral. The heartbreaking moment took place in 2015 and was captured by marine conservation biologist Christine Figgener and her team. When she and her colleague, Nathan Robinson, were researching ridley sea turtles off the coast of Costa Rica, they discovered that the animal had something stuck in its nose. Without knowing what they would find, the pair began trying to dislodge the object while cameras were rolling. To their surprise and horror, they painstakingly removed an entire plastic straw from the turtle’s nostril. “We couldn’t believe that such a mundane object that we really use on a daily basis … that we found it in the turtle’s nose,” said Figgener, adding that “a tiny object caused so much suffering.”

The process was painful and shocking, but the viral video had to be seen in order for serious changes to occur. While the video raised awareness and was used to implement policy change, some believe that the plastic straw ban is only a shortsighted attempt at environmentalism. All single-use plastics are a cause for concern, and environmentalists don’t think that eradicating straws will be enough to save the planet from plastic pollution. Water bottles, yogurt containers, and plastic cups are all larger single-use plastics that consumers use on a larger scale. While plastic straws may be the biggest culprit at the moment, other single-use plastics are far more problematic in the grand scheme of things.

The movement to “go green” forged ahead and many big businesses such as Starbucks and American Airlines pledged their allegiance to the cause. Although Starbucks mostly ditched straws in favor of their new sip-top lid design, some say that it’s a useless swap. The drink lids – along with the cold beverage cups – are made entirely out of plastic. National Geographic reported that plastic straws only make up 0.025% of the 8 million tons of plastic discarded into oceans every year. While some would call these changes performative environmentalism, others would argue that even small changes could make a big difference.

In all, the plastic straw ban has successfully put environmentalism at the forefront of everyone’s minds. It promoted actual change, but more needs to happen in order to sustain the environment for future generations.


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