Getting rid of straws is nice, but what’s the catch?
by Katie Roberts
This summer, Starbucks announced their plan to go straw-less by 2020 with the help of new, sippy cup-style lids made of a plastic called polypropylene. Here’s the issue: they contain more plastic than ordinary lids, so the new packaging is only beneficial if the cups actually make it to the recycling bin. In a perfect world, everyone would always recycle. In reality, US consumers only recycle about 34% of recyclable materials, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. So unless Starbucks customers are the exception to the rule, sippy cup lids may do more harm than good.
Let’s back up: plastic that is not recycled either ends up in landfills or the ocean, creating greater problems than bigger piles of garbage. Plastic is a unique kind of trash because as it breaks down it releases harmful toxins into the land and oceans. Worse, the jury is still out on how long it takes for plastic to fully decompose (current guesses are 1000+ years, but I’m assuming someone pulled that number out of their ass considering plastic has only been around since 1907). Also, the ocean’s plastic waste gets broken into tiny flecks called “microplastics” that find their way inside fish and other marine life. Think about that the next time you order a spicy tuna roll from Sake II.
Hopefully we can agree on this much: plastic is bad. But why are plastic straws the Jerry Gergich of trash? The educated answer is that they are too small to be captured by recycling equipment. However, the average Joe or Josie probably got turned on to the movement by a viral video from 2015 featuring the rescue of a sea turtle with a bloody plastic straw shoved up his nostrils. I happen to work at Starbucks and I cannot tell you how many times this summer I heard something along the lines of, “I’ll have a grande iced skinny vanilla latte with a sippy lid…to save the turtles!” as if there is some kind of direct correlation between Karen skipping her straw and Thomas the Turtle’s home suddenly clearing of toxins and Walmart bags. Don’t get me wrong—any amount of plastic that we can keep out of the environment is a positive thing—but plastic straws only constitute 0.02% of ocean waste. Disposable water bottles, shopping bags, and utensils are actually much bigger problems, relatively speaking.
My point is this: Thomas the Turtle is screwed either way. I don’t mean to discredit the Karens of the world. The fact that plastic waste and marine life even cross the minds of ordinary people represents major social progress. But I’m about to hit you with some truth that will go down about as easily as a shot of Burnett’s on an empty stomach: even if half of American consumers lived plastic-free starting now, it would only be a drop in the metaphorical bucket that is our planet’s impending doom. Here’s why: the average American doesn’t recycle around 185 pounds of plastic annually, while the whole planet adds about 8 million metric tons of plastic to our oceans each year. That figure doesn’t even include landfills, in case you weren’t depressed enough. The reality is that while living an eco-friendly lifestyle helps, we’re all fighting an uphill battle until the industrial systems that generate the majority of the world’s plastic waste grow a pair and finance safe disposal methods (looking your way, Nestlé).
Remember kids, these corporate behemoths probably won’t wake up tomorrow and say, “You know what? Fuck our bottom line, we should prioritize environmental impact over profit. Let’s change everything we’re doing.” So skip the straw, recycle, bring your own shopping bags, and most importantly, use your voice in whatever capacity you can to hold businesses accountable for their literal garbage before it’s too late. Thomas is counting on us.