Environmental Impact of Plastic Straws

Plastic straws are almost always used only once before being disposed of. Further, they really are non-essential (we can drink soda without right?). Plastic straws are single-use, lightweight, and made from Polypropylene, a material which isn’t easily recycled and degrades slowly. As a result, the negative environmental impact of plastic straws is disproportionate compared to volume.

Human beings have had a long history with Plastic Straws. At TRVST we want to encourage people to take actions preventing further harm on the environment from single-use plastics. You can take a small step every time you enjoy a meal out by asking for non-plastic straws with your drink. Or none at all.

Plastics are everywhere. According to the United Nations, we have become addicted to single-use or disposable plastic. Plastic straw bans are now happening across the globe, their days might be numbered.

Plastic straws have become something of the poster child of this environmental problem. (alongside reusable plastic bags).

Every year we go through a staggering 25.3 billion plastic straws in Europe. In the US it is said that we use 500 million plastic straws a day.

Where does all this plastic go? A leading scientific study notes that of the 8.3 billion metrics tons of plastic ever produced only 9% has been recycled1Production, use, and the fate of all plastics ever made, BY Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck, Kara Lavender Law. Science Advances. 19 JUL . This includes plastic straws and all sorts of other single-use plastics.  

What happened to the rest? 12% has been incinerated. The majority at 79% ends up in landfills, dumps or the natural environment.

How do plastic straws get into our oceans?

It really isn’t too clever to be filling up our landfills with plastic we don’t really need to use. However, the environmental impact of plastic straws is arguably worse when they reach our oceans.

How do they get there? Because of their lightweight plastic straws when disposed of often simply blow out of bins. Out of bins and into the waterways that lead to our oceans.

The same can occur when in a landfill.

Birds also add to the problem, scavenging over landfills and digesting straws. The straws they eat can stay in their stomachs until they die. As a result, they often then escape into waterways when birds decompose.

To quantify the overall plastic problem:

  • A massive 8 million tons of plastic (straws and more) enters our oceans each year2Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean. BY Jenna R. Jambeck, Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, Theodore R. Siegler, Miriam Perryman, Anthony Andrady, .
  • Major rivers around the world carry an estimated 1.15 – 2.41 million tons of plastic into the sea every year.3River plastic emissions to the world’s oceans, Laurent C. M. Lebreton, Joost van der Zwet, Jan-Willem Damsteeg, Boyan Slat, Anthony Andrady & Julia

Plastic Straws are the 7th most collected waste item from beaches

Beach clean up of plastic in Somalia
Beach cleanups are happening more and more all over the world. Here we see staff of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) collecting garbage during a beach clean-up exercise in Mogadishu, Somalia. Plastic waste litters beaches all over the world. The environmental impact of plastic straws plays a small yet significant role in this mess. Photo Credit: AMISON Public Information on Flickr, Omar Abdisalan

 

In the UK the Great British Beach Clean cleaned 339 beaches of plastic waste in 2017. This effort resulted in over 250 thousand items of trash being picked up off British beaches. Of these 500 pieces were disposable trays, cutlery and straws.

The same year the Ocean Conservancy rallied volunteers from 112 countries for their own beach cleanup. They further collected a staggering 18 million pounds of trash and plastic products from beaches. An amazing effort.

Amongst their haul of trash they collected over 400 thousand plastic straws. Unbelievably that’s plastic straws equivalent to 145 times the height of One World Trade Centre (New York, at 541 metres). 

Their count found that straws (and stirrers) were the 7th top collected plastic item. Close behind caps, plastic bags, water bottles and cigarette butts.

Sadly however this is only a fraction of the straws in our oceans. Despite their size, the environmental impact of plastic straws is a significant problem in our seas and on our beaches.

How many straws are actually on our beaches?

Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox, two Australian scientists set out to find out. They spent 5 years looking and assessing the waste collected on US shores. Their scientific research, published in 2015, found that there are around 7.5 million straws on America’s coastlines4Using expert elicitation to estimate the impacts of plastic pollution on marine wildlifeChris Wilcox, Nicholas J.MallosThe same team extrapolated that figure globally. As a result, they estimated that there are between 437 million and 8.3 billion plastic straws on the world’s beaches and shores. That’s a whole lot of straws.

Do plastic straws biodegrade?

Plastic waste collected on the beach
Plastic waste washed up on the beach. Photo Credit: Adege on Pixabay


Unfortunately for the environment plastic straws do not 
biodegrade. Basically meaning that they do not decay naturally in a way that is not harmful. This is a key factor affecting the environmental impact of plastic straws on marine life and our oceans. They do however degrade over time. Which means plastic straws break down into smaller particles. The resulting particles are named microplastics.

To add to this problem most plastic straws are made of polypropylene which degrades slowly5Microbial Degradation of Starch-Based Polypropylene, Khoramejadian, Shahrzad. (2013). Journal of Pure and Applied Microbiology. . In fact6Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution , they can take up to 200 years to breakdown7Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution . The resulting degradation has been found to never leave our seas. This means that it is almost impossible to eliminate plastic straws from the environment once they’ve reached our Oceans. Microplastics are so small they are virtually impossible to clean up. All this makes for a big issue caused by a whole lot of very small plastic pieces. 

That’s not the end of it, however. In addition, harmful toxic chemicals are also leached into the environment as those nasty little plastics degrade. 

The Environmental Impact of Plastic Straws on the Oceans

 

By the year 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish
[ellen macauthur]

Plastic strewn beaches are unsightly and can turn the stomach. This mess often ruins the beauty of our beach visits or time on the water.

Worse is what happens out of most people’s sight. Plastics straws are often washed together with other plastics as a result of their light weight. As they are collected together they can easily accumulate into huge ocean garbage patches.

Bringing them together are Ocean gyres. A large vortex or circular movement of the ocean which is a natural phenomenon as a result of ocean currents and the earth’s movements. These big natural whirlpools suck plastic into sometimes massive collections of our trash. Plastics collected together break down even more slowly as a result of not being isolated and more exposed to more of the ocean’s elements. It’s almost as if they protect each other making matters worse. 

Massive ocean garbage patches

The worst of these plastic collections is the well documented Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP).  It’s located halfway between Hawaii and California, occupying an area of 1.6 million square kilometres8Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. L. Lebreton, B. Slat, F. Ferrari, B. Sainte-Rose, J. Aitken, R. Marthouse, . That’s twice the size of France. The mind just boggles how difficult it is going to be to clean up an area that big on the water.

Watch The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Explained by The Ocean Cleanup to find out more.

84% of plastic surveyed9Pollutants in Plastics within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Chen Qiqing, Reisser Julia, Cunsolo Serena, Kwadijk Christiaan, Kotterman Michiel, Proietti Maira, Slat Boyan, in this huge mess was found to contain Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxic chemicals (PBT’s). PBT’s are basically really nasty chemicals.

According to Wikipedia “[their], high toxicity and persistence have the ability to destroy and/or irreparably damage trophic systems.” Trophic Systems is a term referring to the parts and levels of our food chain. And to avoid problems later down the line with the food we all need to survive these systems all need to work together.

What is the effect of plastic straws on marine life?

As if all that wasn’t bad enough the environmental impact of plastic straws goes beyond the mess we’ve made. Single-use plastics and a lot of straws are also impacting marine life and other animals.  

Marine debris, three-quarters of which is plastic, is negatively affecting more than 800 animal species and costing economies millions.
(The United Nations Environment Programme, 2016)

Divers free a seal from a plastic fishing net
Plastics in our oceans cause harm to marine life. One of the biggest problems is fishing nets which entangle sea creatures. Here we see divers freeing a seal from fishing nets. Whereas the environmental impact of plastic straws is smaller than many plastics each straw in our oceans is one too many. Photo credit: NOAA on Flickr.

 

Of course, it’s pretty hard for many species of marine life to swallow a straw. It does, however, happen sometimes especially with the small straws on cardboard drinks containers. Larger plastics tend to disproportionately affect Sea Turtles and Seabirds. Because these animals do in fact10Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution mistake these items for food.

Microplastics, on the other hand, can float forever. They persist in the Oceans until some poor marine animal swallows them. They are almost microscopic particles and hard to discern from normal food in the marine environment. Ingested plastics can then stay in the gut of the fish or animal that has swallowed them until passed at death. Scarily they don’t degrade entirely ever. Marine animals with plastic in their guts can then also be eaten by other creatures on the food chain passing the problem from one animal to another.

Plastics harm marine life

So do plastic straws really actually harm our marine life? To study the impact of plastics on marine life academics from The University of Georgia collected 96 baby turtles11Ingested Micronizing Plastic Particle Compositions and Size Distributions within Stranded Post-Hatchling Sea Turtles. Evan M. White, Samantha Clark, Charles A. Manire, Benjamin Crawford, Shunli Wang, from beaches around Florida. Published findings from their research noted that all of the turtles in the sample had ingested plastic. Sadly around half of the turtles in the study died. The team theorized was likely as a result of the plastic in their systems.

Meanwhile in the North Pacific alone, according to the Centre for Biological Diversity, fish ingest somewhere between 12000 and 20000 tons of plastic each year. Whilst 56% of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) were found to have ingested marine debris12Evaluating the impacts of marine debris on cetaceans. Baulch S, Perry C. Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). 11th February 2014. . Three-quarters of marine waste is plastic.

Turtles, seabirds and fish who have consumed plastic can die of starvation. These undeserving creatures think that their stomachs are full and fail, through no fault of their own. to eat the food they actually need13Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing Chris Wilcox, Erik Van Sebille, and Britta Denise Hardesty. Proceedings of . Aside from killing these creatures with our plastic mess, we’re polluting a vital part of our own food chain.

This picture shows the carcass of Laysan albatross on Easern Island. The amount of plastic this sea bird has consumed is shocking and most likely had a role in its death. Photo Credit, USFWS on Flickr. BY-NC 2.0.

 

What of the impact on our food?

There is a small amount of good news. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States found that the effect of microplastics on humans was negligible14Microplastic in fisheries and aquaculture. Amy Lusher, Peter Hollman, Jeremy Mendoza-Hill. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States. 2017. .

This is as a result of the majority of these little particles being found in the guts of the fish we eat. Of course, most people only eat the white flesh of fish. The guts are removed and discarded with the plastics in them not making their way into our bodies. 

Another study from 2018, led by the University of Vienna, found the opposite:

more than 50% of the world population [of Humans] might have microplastics in their stools15Assessment of Microplastic Concentrations in Human Stools.. Liebmann, Bettina & Köppel, Sebastian & Königshofer, Philipp & Bucsics, Theresa & Reiberger, Thomas & Schwabl, ”.

Contrary findings are often the case when researching external impacts on large and complicated systems. The study, notably, researched only a small sample. working with only eight people from Europe, Japan and Russia. The authors clearly note that larger studies are required to further validate their findings. All the same, it’s clear the environmental impact of plastic straws is harming our food chains.

Micro-plastics are a growing concern
Microplastics, the result of larger plastics degrading into smaller and smaller particles are a growing concern. Photo Credit: Oregon State University on Flick, BY-SA 2.0

Say no to straws to reduce your environmental impact

It probably comes as no surprise that our oceans are important to life on our planet. The importance of the Oceans goes well beyond the fish we eat. Did you know that our oceans produce over half of the world’s Oxygen and absorb 50 times more carbon dioxide than our Atmosphere16Why should we care about the ocean? National Ocean Service. U.S. Department of Commerce. 25th June 2018. ?

As a result of plastic waste, we’re poisoning the water and the marine life in it.

It’s recognised that that GPGB is a highly visible indicator fo quite how bad this all is. And for certain straws are only a small part of the overall mass. Yet the fact still remains that we need to work together to address each and every plastic waste contributor urgently.

To do so will involve governments, huge resources and change at a massive scale.

Is there an answer? The Marine Conservation Society notes that the best solution to mitigate the environmental impact of plastic straws is preventing them from even entering our Oceans. Simple and clear.

Take Action

Each of our actions can make a small difference. If we all chose eco-friendly alternatives to plastic straws we’d alleviate the flow of this plastic waste culprit into our seas.

Every single-use plastic straw we save from entering our Oceans is an improvement on the status quo. Also by asking for non-plastic straws when eating out, you can make a small a simple step in the right direction. This, in turn, reduces the need for restaurants to stock plastic straws in the first place and at best stop serving them by default.

We, humans, have had a long history with plastic straws and it’s one we hope is coming to an end. At TRVST we’re encouraged by initial progress to phase out plastic straws. You can also read more about companies banning plastic straws and straw bans by the EU. Needless to say, there’s a lot more we all to do to co-create the change that will protect our environment for future generations.

Meanwhile, at TRVST, our focus is on individual and collective action. Action we can all participate in. Because it’s time to remove straws from the picture.

Colourful plastic straws
The environmental impact of plastic straws is one we can address with action. Do we really need a wasteful and harmful single-use plastic utensil to enjoy our drinks? Ask for non-plastic straws and use plastic-free alternatives to make a small but important difference. Photo Credit: vzoest0 on Pixabay.

 

Sources and References (not linked above)

#Description
1Production, use, and the fate of all plastics ever made, BY Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck, Kara Lavender Law. Science Advances. 19 JUL 2017: E1700782
2Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean. BY Jenna R. Jambeck, Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, Theodore R. Siegler, Miriam Perryman, Anthony Andrady, Ramani Narayan, Kara Lavender Law. Science, vol. 347, no. 6223, 13 Feb. 2015, pp. 768–771., doi:10.1126/science.1260352.
3River plastic emissions to the world’s oceans, Laurent C. M. Lebreton, Joost van der Zwet, Jan-Willem Damsteeg, Boyan Slat, Anthony Andrady & Julia Reisser, Nature Communications, 2017
4Using expert elicitation to estimate the impacts of plastic pollution on marine wildlifeChris Wilcox, Nicholas J.Mallos, George H.Leonard, Alba Rodriguez, Britta Denise Hardesty. Marine Policy Volume 65, March 2016, Pages 107-114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2015.10.014
5Microbial Degradation of Starch-Based Polypropylene, Khoramejadian, Shahrzad. (2013). Journal of Pure and Applied Microbiology.
6Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
7Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
8Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. L. Lebreton, B. Slat, F. Ferrari, B. Sainte-Rose, J. Aitken, R. Marthouse, S. Hajbane, S. Cunsolo, A. Schwarz, A. Levivier, K. Noble, P. Debeljak, H. Maral, R. Schoeneich-Argent, R. Brambini & J. Reisser. Scientific Reports. March 2018. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-22939-wDO
9Pollutants in Plastics within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Chen Qiqing, Reisser Julia, Cunsolo Serena, Kwadijk Christiaan, Kotterman Michiel, Proietti Maira, Slat Boyan, Ferrari Francesco F., Schwarz Anna, Levivier Aurore, Yin Daqiang, Hollert Henner, Koelmans Albert A. American Chemical Society. 16th January 2018. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.7b04682
10Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
11Ingested Micronizing Plastic Particle Compositions and Size Distributions within Stranded Post-Hatchling Sea Turtles. Evan M. White, Samantha Clark, Charles A. Manire, Benjamin Crawford, Shunli Wang, Jason Locklin, Branson W. Ritchie.. Environmental Science & Technology, 2018; DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b02776
12Evaluating the impacts of marine debris on cetaceans. Baulch S, Perry C. Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). 11th February 2014.
13Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing Chris Wilcox, Erik Van Sebille, and Britta Denise Hardesty. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 27th August 2015. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1502108112
14Microplastic in fisheries and aquaculture. Amy Lusher, Peter Hollman, Jeremy Mendoza-Hill. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States. 2017.
15Assessment of Microplastic Concentrations in Human Stools.. Liebmann, Bettina & Köppel, Sebastian & Königshofer, Philipp & Bucsics, Theresa & Reiberger, Thomas & Schwabl, Philipp. (2018). 10.13140/RG.2.2.16638.02884.
16Why should we care about the ocean? National Ocean Service. U.S. Department of Commerce. 25th June 2018.

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