Single-use straws will become only a memory in Starbucks by 2020, as the global coffeehouse chain has announced it is eliminating plastic straws from its 28,000 stores worldwide. That means around a billion less straws every year will be in circulation and going to landfills, which will help to reduce plastic contamination of the world’s oceans and save marine animals from severe infections, blockages in their digestive system, and even strangulation.
Every day, individuals in the US use — and almost immediately discard — plastic straws. According to Australian scientists Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox, some 7.5 million straws litter US shorelines alone. They estimate that as many as 8.3 billion straws can be found on the world’s coastlines. The plastic waste that is thrown away into seas every year can kill as many as 1,000,000 sea creatures. Even if a stray straw doesn’t find its way into the mouth or nose of a sea animal, plastic doesn’t biodegrade like organic matter but breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that clog the ocean and get consumed by marine life.
Over time, plastic breaks down into tiny particles called micro-plastics, which are found on shorelines and in the systems of marine animals around the world.
A straws-on-request movement is spreading across the US and globe. For example, environmentalists are pushing California cities to require restaurants and other food services to keep their plastic straws to themselves unless a customer asks for one. Activists aim to make the use of plastic straws and single-use plastic items as socially unacceptable, saying that there are alternatives – paper straws, bamboo straws, and even straws made from pasta. (Author’s note: I just received a lovely gift set of three different sized metal straws and an accompanying pipe cleaner. :)) Or, they say, go back to the method we all used before the arrival of the straw – simply sipping our drinks from a glass.
Davis and San Luis Obispo passed straw restrictions last year. “The whole premise is to create awareness around this issue, not to punish people,” said SLO Councilman Aaron Gomez. “It’s about getting people to ponder whether you need a straw… or whether you can do without one.” Fort Myers, Florida has already enacted a similar ban and like-minded propositions are currently being considered in both San Francisco and New York.
Starbucks’ announcement came a week after Seattle, Washington, implemented its city-wide ban on plastic straws in restaurants. Starbucks is headquartered in Seattle.
In May, 2018, the European Council unveiled a plan to ban 10 plastic items that constitute 70% of the pollution in European waterways. That EC proposal also requires plastic producers to assume plastic cleanup costs.
The Problems with Plastic Straws and Other Single Use Plastics
Plastics production became popular around 1950. Since then, 2/3 of the 9.2 billion tons that has been manufactured has become waste, and hardly any of it has been recycled. Researchers in the journal Science journal calculated that 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean. 40% of today’s plastic is single-use. Less than a fifth of all plastic gets recycled globally. In the US, it’s less than 10%. In March 2018, the European Space Agency said that it would begin measuring plastic pollution levels from orbit to provide a more accurate plastics count than current estimates.
Here are some things you should know about plastics.
- A staggering 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection systems, generating significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean and clogging urban infrastructure.
- Today, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or $80 –120 billion annually, is lost to the economy after a short first use.
- Each year, at least 8 million tons of plastics leak into the ocean — which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to 2 per minute by 2030 and 4 per minute by 2050.
- If the current strong growth of plastics usage continues as expected, the plastics will account for 20% of total oil consumption and 15% of the global annual carbon budget by 2050.
- One recent study found in Europe today 53% of plastic packaging could be recycled economically and environmentally effectively.
Starbucks’ actions to eliminate single-use straws has set a precedent, allowing it to serve as a role model for other environmentally conscious companies. American Airlines joined Starbucks and Hyatt, announcing that they are phasing out the use of plastic straws globally. At the start of June, McDonald’s announced that it would begin phasing out plastic straws from more than a thousand of its restaurants throughout the UK and Ireland. Back in February, Dunkin Donuts announced that it would phase out polystyrene foam cups from its stores by the start of the next decade.
Starbucks is developing a recyclable spouted lid that has been described as an “adult sippy cup.” These lids, according the the company, “will become the standard for all iced coffee, tea, and espresso beverages.” It’s already available at 8,000 North American locations. Seattle and Vancouver customers will be the first to see these new lids on all their drinks starting this fall. The rest of the US and Canada will get them by the end of 2019, and the remainder of the world will receive them after that.
However, the new lids will still be made of a plastic called polypropylene (PP), which the company defends as “widely recycled” but continues to accumulate as part of global plastics pollution. The melting point and strength of PP makes it the single most used plastic packaging in the UK and the US, with approximately five billion pounds produced in 2010 alone in the US. But according to PP production and recycling figures provided by American Chemistry Council, PP is one of the least recycled post-consumer plastics, at a rate below 1%.
Although we at CleanTechnica have contacted Starbucks for a comment as to why they’ve chosen to substitute straws with a lid that is made of PP and rarely recycled, we haven’t heard back from them at this writing.
The Earth Day Network suggests that each of us do our parts by refusing straws — it’s as simple as adding, “No straw, please” to your beverage orders in restaurants or cafes — and declining beverage tops. They make a good point: Are you really going to spill? Taking time to think ahead in a restaurant or cafe is a lot easier than taking responsibility for the up to 500 years it takes for plastic items to decompose in landfills.
Photos by Dean Hochman on Foter.com / CC BY and Franz Lanting, National Geographic
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