This semester, CulinArt proudly declared that it has banned plastic straws from Stony Brook University’s dining halls and replaced them with biodegradable alternatives. The “Strawless Suffolk” initiative, which intends to make Suffolk County more eco-friendly by reducing the amount of plastic it contributes to landfills and the ocean, is fueled by videos such as a sea turtle getting a straw painfully trapped in its nostrils.
Similar measures are being lauded as the next big step toward fighting plastic pollution in California, Taiwan and China. Seattle passed its own plastic straw ban back in July and New York City began considering one in June. As popular as these bans are, they aren’t nearly as effective as anyone would like them to be.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 42 billion straws will be consumed in the U.K. in 2018 alone. Even though they’re one of the most common types of plastic litter, individual straws only weigh about 0.42 g each. Worldwide, only about 2,000 of the 8 million tons of plastic that seep into the ocean each year will consist of plastic straws. That’s just 0.025 percent of the total weight of plastic debris.
R. Lawrence Swanson, the director of the Waste Reduction and Management Institute at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, called the straw issue more of a symbolic step than an impactful one.
“Compared to plastic waste stream and emissions, straws are relatively small,” Swanson said.
He also says that instances like the viral sea turtle video are relatively rare in nature. He recommends banning hard-to-recycle plastic bags to protect wildlife. According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, one million marine animals die each year when they mistake plastic products, particularly bags, for food.
But it’s important to consider the cost of plastic alternatives. Although they’re made from petroleum, a type of fossil fuel, plastic is remarkably energy efficient. A study by the Danish government found that a reusable cotton shopping bag would need be used 152 times to have an impact on climate change. The same bag would need to be used 7,100 times, the equivalent of using it every day for almost 20 years, to produce fewer emissions than the creation of a plastic bag would.
In addition, when biodegradable products like corn straws decompose, they release methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide in the first two decades after its release. Anaerobic landfills that lack oxygen rely on bacteria to break down their trash, but this bacteria also produces methane as a byproduct of the decomposition process.
That isn’t to say that limiting the usage of plastics is an inherently bad idea. Plastics can take centuries to decompose. When they do, they break down into microplastics that have seeped into every aspect of the food chain.
Some chemicals found in plastic, like Bisphenol A (BPA), can interfere with hormones and may cause infertility, premature puberty and birth defects. BPA has been found in everything from honey to tap water. It’s so widespread that 93 percent of people have BPA in their urine.
So if we’re all eating and drinking pollutants no matter what we do, what should we do?
Recycling more would be the obvious answer. The more plastic that gets reused, the less it litters the environment or lingers in landfills. But the U.S. recycling industry is straining underneath the burdens of American waste production, particularly after China stopped taking our waste back in January.
The Plastic Industry Association (PLASTICS), a pro-plastic trade association, is lobbying Congress to improve recycling infrastructure as an alternative to plastic bans. The American Chemistry Council, which PLASTICS also represents, has promised to recycle all plastic packaging in the U.S. by 2030. But even this would not be a complete solution to the plastic problem.
Our tendency to leave our recyclables unsorted and uncleaned makes the recycling process much more expensive. Workers need to sort through recycling to ensure that what’s being tossed in can actually be processed, resulting in even more waste as entire batches get thrown out for containing contaminated materials or improperly disposed items.
Improving recycling infrastructure is undoubtedly an important step, but it can’t just be restricted to the U.S. Around 83 percent of the world’s plastic waste deposited through rivers comes from countries like China, the Philippines and Indonesia that are growing rapidly without the facilities to handle all of the waste they’re producing.
On a local level, there are still things that the average consumer can do to reduce their plastic footprint. Simply reusing a plastic shopping bag as a waste bin liner has little impact, but buying and eating more unpackaged produce can reduce the amount of food packaging going into landfills.
Saying no to plastic straws is a first step toward making people realize the impact plastic has on the environment, but it isn’t a solution or even a stopgap. More action needs to be taken if plastic pollution is going to be contained.