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Deeply Talks: Why Plastic Straws Are Key to Fighting Ocean Pollution

Oceans Deeply talks with experts about how the city of Seattle pioneered a ban on plastic straws, a campaign to make other cities ‘strawless’ and how straws are a gateway to changing people’s use of disposable plastics, responsible for a marine pollution crisis.

Written by Todd Woody Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
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Plastic straws and other trash overflow garbarge bins in London.In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

The world uses 1 billion unrecyclable plastic straws a day – 500 million in the United States – an untold number of which end up in the ocean, polluting the water and coastlines and posing a deadly threat to sea turtles and other marine animals. The Lonely Whale Foundation’s “Strawless in Seattle” campaign resulted in the elimination of 2.3 million disposable plastic straws in the month of September in that city. As of July 1, 2018, Seattle will ban non-compostable plastic straws and cutlery from 3,100 food service businesses that range from Starbucks to sports stadiums. Lonely Whale will take its strawless campaign to at least 10 more cities next year.

In the latest episode of Deeply Talks, Todd Woody, News Deeply’s executive editor for environment, moderates a discussion about the straw ban and efforts to get people to “stop sucking” with Dune Ives, executive director of the Lonely Whale Foundation, Susan Fife-Ferris, director of solid waste planning and program management for Seattle Public Utilities and David Rhodes, global business director for paper straw maker Aardvark.

Why focus on straws?

“When I took a look at ways to bring people closer to the ocean and raise awareness about ocean health issues and specifically marine litter, we wanted to find that one item that was really ubiquitous for all of us in our everyday experiences,” said Ives, “for which there was a readily available acceptable alternative that could be acted upon very quickly by every person.”

For the city of Seattle, straws were the last straw in a decade-long effort to replace plastic and Styrofoam packaging and utensils used by food service businesses with sustainable alternatives. “There are many certified compostable straws in the marketplace now,” said Fife-Ferris.

While the city will allow compostable plastic straws, such straws can only be composted in industrial facilities and will not biodegrade if they get into the ocean. Paper straws made by Aardvark, however, are marine biodegradable, according to Rhodes.

But it’s not really about straws, the panelists emphasized, it’s about using them to change attitudes toward a throwaway culture that has led to the ocean plastic pollution crisis.

“The ingenuity of addressing something as small and common as a straw, something so often used without thought with a wasteful impact, is that it allows us to look at our wasteful behaviors and consider what else we carelessly and needlessly use,” said Fife-Ferris.

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