EFFORTS to limit the use of plastic bags at a nationwide supermarket chain recently garnered much attention. But plastic bags are not the only seemingly innocuous items that pose a threat to the environment. As a petition launched this month by environmental advocate Joanne Samsundar notes, single-use plastic items such as plastic straws can have a devastating impact.
There are undoubtedly some people who need to use plastic straws. For the disabled, the elderly and the ill, straws are an essential part of health and wellness. And why focus on straws when there are far more pressing sources of pollution to deal with?
The Ocean Conservancy’s 2017 Coastal Cleanup Report found that the most common trash items found on beaches are cigarettes, followed by plastic bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, and bags. Straws and stirrers placed seventh, about three percent of the total trash. Bloomberg News estimates that on a global scale, straws would probably account for just 0.03 percent.
Surely, we should be focusing on ending oil spills from our petrochemical industry and curbing the release of noxious emissions from our cars and industry. Yet, when we consider how a plastic straw can harm marine wildlife like seabirds and turtles it is clear that in some cases, this object can easily become the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
This is graphically demonstrated by a disturbing video of a straw being removed from a turtle’s nostrils which is alluded to by Samsundar’s online petition, which has already gathered more than 15,000 signatures.
But turtles are not the only creatures harmed. Each year, one million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die from ingesting plastic, according to Get Green Now, an environmental lobby group.
While plastic kills marine life because of strangulation or choking, the larger reason why it is so dangerous is that it releases toxic chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA) when it breaks down. BPA messes with our hormones and can be carcinogenic. And though researchers aren’t sure how toxic microplastics are when we consume them, it is a fact that microplastics are finding their way into our food. This means that the small straw which we so cavalierly throw away is coming right back to us.
Plastic straws are particularly egregious items because of how wasteful our habits are in relation to them. We use them only once and, aside from people who have medical reasons for using them, they are gratuitous. Worse, most plastic straws are too lightweight to make it through a mechanical recycling sorter and are too small to separate.
When it comes to the plastic threat, other Caribbean countries have already taken action. Haiti, which many like to look down upon as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, banned plastic bags and Styrofoam since 2012.
Banning plastic straws might seem like a small step. But such a move could send a big signal.