Each year, Americans go through 380 billion single-use plastic bags. These bags can’t be recycled in your household bin; instead, you have to take them to special processing facilities, which generally means they just end up getting tossed into landfill or blowing around and getting stuck in tree branches.
Global Wildlife estimates that, if we continue using and disposing of plastic at current rates, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the ocean. In 2010 alone we generated 275 million tons of plastic waste globally, with roughly one-third of that ending up in the ocean. In fact, worldwide we only recycle 14% of all plastic waste — though some estimates put that number as low as 9%.
Governments and companies are trying to reduce these staggering stats with plastic use reduction initiatives. As of earlier this month, over 60 countries have introduced levees or bans to reduce single-use plastic consumption.
Consumers have been dutifully toting their reuseable shopping bags to the grocery store for years, but the new “cool” green initiative is saying to no plastic straws. Actor and environmental activist Adrian Grenier even launched a Twitter campaign to get people to #stopsucking.
Globally, several countries are taking big steps on this front. Last month the European Commission proposed a ban on 10 items that make up more than 70% of all litter in EU waters and beaches. Included on that list are single-use plastic items like straws, bags, and cotton buds. Scotland has promised to ban all plastic straws by 2019, the U.K. has announced similar plans, and Taiwan plans to ban all plastic cups and straws by 2030.
Foodservice companies are getting on board, too. In the U.K., major chains Wagamama’s and Pizza Express have already eliminated plastic straws from their restaurants. Coffee chain giant Costa Coffee will also remove plastic straws from its stores this year. As an alternative, most establishments are offering compostable straws made of paper or other biodegradable materials or giving customers the option to do without straws altogether. Some more upscale restaurants are also offering reusable straws made of glass or aluminum. And at Smart Kitchen Summit Europe this year, FoodPairing’s robot-created cocktails featured thick, uncooked pasta noodles as straws.
Stateside, we’re working on the straw issue — we’re just a little slower to the table. It all started here in Seattle, where the Lonely Whale has launched its first city campaign to support Strawless Ocean’s global campaign to eliminate 500 million plastic straws from the waste stream. Which is how many straws we use in the U.S. in one day. Starting July 1st, 10 years after the legislation was introduced, Seattle restaurants who use plastic spoons or cutlery will be fined $250.
Miami Beach, Malibu, and Edmonds, WA have adopted a simliar ban. New York recently proposed legislation to end plastic straw use by 2020, under which violators would have to pay a $100 fine.
In theory, a plastic straw ban is great. No more clogging up the oceans, no more injuring or killing sea turtles, and, thanks to biodegradable and resuable straw options, we don’t even have to give up on the pleasure of smoothie slurping. What’s not to love?
The path to adoption does have some hurdles, however. Paper straws can get soggy quickly. And biodegradable straws made of wheat or bamboo can cost 5-6 times more than straws made of regular plastic. Which means they might fly for fancier coffee shops and cafés, but it might take a while for fast food chains who are ordering millions and millions of straws per week to roll them out in huge numbers.
Though some giant restaurant chains are (at least trying to) switch over from plastic straws. In the U.K., McDonald’s started using paper drinking straws in 1,300 locations this May, and will expand the initiative to all of their locations in the U.K. and Ireland by September. According to U.S.A. Today, the fast food chain will start testing plastic straw alternatives in its U.S. stores later this year.
I have been personally guilted away from having a straw with my iced coffee several times. As have food-related retailers, producers, and distributors. Alaska Airlines halted plastic straw usage in May of this year. Bon Appétit Management, a foodservice company with 1,000 locations in museums, university campuses, and other institutions, promised to eliminate all plastic straws and stirrers by 2019.
Advocates are hoping that straws can become “gateway plastics,” leading to an anti-single use plastic revolution. Food-related companies are already starting to move away from non-recyclable plastic use. Last week investors pressured global corporations Nestlé, Unilever, PepsiCo and others to reduce their plastic packaging. In the U.S. Purple Carrot became the first meal kit service to make all of their plastic packaging home-recyclable, and startup Stasher has developed re-usable silicone bags intended for food storage or sous vide.
Until then, prepare to get some side-eyes if you opt for a plastic straw with your cold brew.