Plastic Straws Are A Visible Embodiment Of A Bigger Problem

Sep 30, 2019

Plastic straws are the latest poster child of environmental concern.

The Masked Biologist examines the current cultural move away from the use of plastic straws in this week’s Wildlife Matters.

If you have spent any time on social media, you may have seen it—a video of a person using a pliers to extract a plastic straw from the nostril of a sea turtle. It was no surprise to me, a short time later, to start hearing about some locations outlawing plastic straws. When I started doing a little research, I found out that while sad and a little disgusting, the turtle nasal straw apparently was not the primary impetus for subsequent straw bans around the country.

Straws have been majorly made of plastic since the end of world war two. Since that time, people have been able to drink beverages with only minor inconvenience thanks to the plastic straw.  There are benefits to drinking from a straw, don’t get me wrong. I taught my boys how to drink from a straw to make it easier to wean them from bottles. Some people need to use a straw to help them take pills. There are a lot of people who need to have straws, like those in medical treatment or who have difficulty holding a glass or swallowing. Drinking from a straw will also keep your lips from touching the top of an aluminum soda can, which has touched who-knows-what.

Many of our selections every day negatively impact the environment, and the decision to drink from a straw is no worse than any other choice you make. For example, maybe you let the water run while you brush your teeth. Or, maybe you drive your vehicle when you could’ve chosen to walk. Since we are friends, I can tell you one of my dirty secrets. Whenever I pack a lunch for work, I put my sandwich in a fold top plastic bag. I can justify it to myself though. First off, I never know what my hands are going to be on or in before I eat lunch. Second, when I tried putting my sandwich into a container without a bag, I ended up with two dry pieces of bread and a couple of tossed ingredients. So I made the decision that I was going to use one plastic bag a day.

Straws are a visible embodiment of a bigger problem. They are easily in the top ten of the most commonly picked up trash items in big cities. By nature, they defy containment. They are small, lightweight, they float, they roll, so they are going to end up where they do not belong—like in gutters, storm sewers, and sea turtle nostrils. People are standing up today and saying they can do without a plastic straw. Some people are just turning down a straw when offered. Others are insisting that laws be passed that no one be allowed to use a plastic straw. My sister and her family all carry reusable, washable straws with them wherever they go. What do I do? if I am eating inside a restaurant, I get a drink without a lid or a straw. If I am driving or travelling, I use a straw but I make sure to dispose of it properly. When I go to an establishment that uses paper straws, I tell them I appreciate their choice and make sure to tell others who might choose to patronize their establishment as well. Finally, at home, as a family we decided to pay the small extra amount to buy compostable straws that let us enjoy beverages but do not contribute additional plastic waste to landfills.

Do we as a community outlaw plastic straws, though? I don’t know. I think about when I was younger, and fast food came in polystyrene containers. That changed, and we moved through options like paper and cardboard, and I don’t remember laws coming into play. Maybe we do need to pass laws to protect the earth, but do we need laws to force us to make smart environmental choices? Ultimately, it will probably need to be a financially beneficial tradeoff for large chains to decide to make such a change.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.

The photo above belongs to Max Pixel and can be found online here.