The Last Straw: The Growing Plastic Problem
By Lindsay Wu
“STOP SUCKING!” appeared across the television screen in bold letters. Intrigued by the seemingly rude tweet that interrupted her typical news feed, Sonya Ribner '19 reached for her laptop and googled the slogan.
Ribner discovered the “Stop Sucking” campaign—an effort to reduce single-use plastic straws. The movement was created by the Strawless Ocean Initiative of the Lonely Whale Foundation, an incubator that promotes the preservation of oceanic and environmental wellness.
“All of a sudden, I became aware of these incredible, in a bad way, facts of how the marine life is being affected by plastic straws,” Ribner said.
At the current rate of pollution, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050, according to the Lonely Whale's website.
"This fact kind of stunned me, and nobody wants to swim at the beach and find plastic in the water," Ribner said. "Plastic is such a pollutant to our environment, that we need to do something about it.”
Ribner has since joined the fight against plastic straws, which have drawn increasing opposition across America due to the plastic pollution problem. Straws are not only dangerous for marine wildlife but are also not compostable, Ribner said.
According to the Lonely Whale Foundation, Americans use approximately 500 million plastic straws every day, largely contributing to the 300 million metric tons of plastic produced annually worldwide. Only nine percent of this plastic is recycled, and 79 percent is placed in landfills or scatters into the natural world and 12 percent is incinerated. Also, according to Business Insider, the production of plastic releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is detrimental to the atmosphere and increases global warming.
Advocates like Ribner push for removal of these straws, as they see no necessity in their use. Though they can be beneficial, she finds nothing wrong with drinking straight from the glass, Ribner said.
“Eliminating straws seemed like such a tangible way to make a difference, just to stop using them,” Ribner said. “We don’t need them, and I thought that this was something that I could really do.”
Milo Cress, 17, saw a similar need in his community. He founded the BeStrawFree organization in 2011, which supports policies to decrease unnecessary straw use both in restaurants and in daily life.
“I have always advocated an offer-first policy and have always encouraged people to order their drinks without straws whenever they don't need to use one,” Cress said.
Though Cress began to take action against plastic straws almost eight years ago, the movement gained momentum in 2015 when a video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw lodged in its nose went viral. In the eight-minute video, one researcher attempted to remove the unidentified object from the turtle’s nostril with a pair of pliers, while the turtle whimpered and bled. At the end of the video, the researchers succeeded in removing the object, which was revealed to be straw.
Since then, plastic bans have been issued across the United States. California became the first state to ban straws from restaurants after Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill in September. Starting in 2019, customers must ask for a straw before they are given one.
In July, Seattle was the first major city to straws and other single-use plastic from restaurants. Smaller cities, including Malibu, already have existing bans in place.
After persuading Malibu to eliminate plastic bags around five years ago, Malibu resident and environmentalist Deborah Collodel turned her attention to eliminating straws. She said the plastic problem has become very apparent in her city.
“There is so much pollution, you can’t imagine,” Collodel said. “People are selfish and short-sighted. They pollute the area, especially in our northern beaches. These beaches are private, so we don’t even see all of it, but if I walk the beach on a low-tide, I can easily pick up a bag full of trash. Probably the worst things that we see in great volume are straws, plastic caps, plastic water bottles and cigarette butts, all of which we don’t need.”
For Collodel, the most important ways to address the issue are educating others and spreading awareness within her community.
“Somebody told me about the big plastic trash masses in the middle of the ocean a while back, and I just didn’t know,” Collodel said. “I used plastic bags all the time because they’re sanitary and I wasn’t killing trees. I always thought plastic was better, but when I heard this, everything shifted. I am now doing everything in my power to diminish plastic pollution. Once I saw the problem, I couldn’t unsee it. And that’s why we have to raise awareness, because once you know, you can’t go back. Once you know how much of a problem this is, our convenience is so much less important than the health of our ocean and the environment.”
Cress, who has spoken internationally about the plastic problem, said he believes that communication and clarity are instrumental in helping others understand his fight against the issues at hand.
“I believe in keeping the message positive and focusing on what we can do differently rather than putting a huge emphasis on what others are doing wrong,” Cress said. “When I see something I think is wrong, I like to try to find an alternative way of doing things and highlighting the solution and find a way of making the solution as easy to achieve as possible. It is also important to make the message easy to understand, easy to digest and the solution as easy as possible to implement.”
In addition, Ribner said that there are many different alternatives to single-use plastic straws, including reusable plastic, bamboo, glass and metal straws.
However, some argue that substitute straws are inferior to their plastic counterparts.
“I really do want to save the environment, that’s a great thing,” Nathan Lee ’20 said. “But have you tried to use a paper straw? They disintegrate really fast, and then they don’t work. I haven’t tried the other alternatives, though, so they might be better alternatives for us and the environment.”
In addition, the main opposers of the plastic straw movement argue that single-use plastic straws are necessary for some demographics, such as older individuals, young children and the disabled.
“Other types of straws simply do not offer the combination of strength, flexibility, and safety that plastic straws do,” Disability Rights Washington, a non-profit organization, said in a letter to the Seattle following the implementation of the ban.
Environmentalists, however, said that the bans on single-use plastic contain necessary exceptions.
“I have never tried to make straws obsolete or difficult to get for those who need them,” Cress said. “I plan to stay on this track.”
Collodel has also considered these members of the community, and shared a similar opinion to Cress.
“Still, there are so many arenas where people need plastic,” Collodel said. “Like when you go into a hospital, you have to have all of that be single-use. In those situations, then, of course, people should use plastic. I would never want to take that away from anyone who needs it. But most people don’t and that’s really more to the point.”
Collodel also said she believes that every individual can contribute to the plastic problem.
"I know I’m one person, but I really feel like I can see a tiny ripple effect from what I advocate for,” Collodel said. “If everyone did their part, big or small, we would have a huge ripple effect. You don’t have to be a huge zealot out there like me per se, but even if everyone did their own thing in their own way, we could turn this problem around.”
Large corporations including Aramark, Starbucks and Delta have also vowed to reduce plastic, according to Business Insider. Starbucks will phase out straws by 2020 in order to uphold a global commitment to the world, according to its press release. The company has also designed a strawless lid and will eliminate approximately one billion plastic straws each year. According to its website, Delta Airlines has also eliminated plastic stirrers on its flights, which will reduce plastic by 300,000 pounds per year.
Schools around Los Angeles have also begun to eliminate plastic straws from their campuses and aid the environment. After receiving positive feedback from her peers regarding an opinion article she wrote in the Chronicle opposing use of plastic straws, Ribner presented the administration with a report on how best to reduce the school’s plastic pollution and how the changes would positively impact the community.
The school has since banned plastic straws and replaced them with compostable straws that are biodegradable. Ribner said she and the Environmental Club will next attempt to remove plastic water bottles from the cafeterias.
In addition, Campbell Hall Episcopal School has implemented a composting system and Marlborough School for Girls no longer offers plastic bottles or straws, Ribner said.
However, not all schools have taken action.
“So far, my school has done nothing about plastic straws,” Oak Park High School senior Lexi Garfinkel, who is one of Collodel's students, said. “I really wish we could just get rid of them here since it is such an easy fix and so detrimental to the environment. We need to take initiative.”
Like Garfinkel, Cress said that individuals must take charge. Cress has fought to eliminate plastic straws for almost eight years now and said he does not intend to stop anytime soon.
“Where we go regarding the environment depends very much on how much action is taken now,” Cress said. “I think about it this way: it does not matter if we can cure cancer if the planet is not inhabitable. Nothing is more important than the environment. We must have a place to live, or it won't matter what diseases we can cure or how much money we can accrue or anything else we achieve if we don't have a planet that's livable. We cannot wait for others to change our communities and the world for us. We can effect change now, at any age, and we need to.”