“Save the turtles” and the plastic straw phenomenon
September 24, 2019
“Save the turtles,” stemming from a video that went viral in 2017 of a straw being pulled from a turtle’s nose, continues to be spread around social media posts and commercials. The video now has over 37 million views. The instructions state to bring a reusable straw to restaurants and coffee shops but with a dozen to choose from (with additional downsides), the proper way to save the marine animal remains unknown to many. The best option is to decline the straw if possible, but if not, invest in a silicone straw that will last years, and if it’s an emergency, try a paper straw.
Plastic straws represent the broader issue of plastic waste in the oceans. The prediction of there being more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050 stands alongside the save the turtle campaign, but saying no to straws isn’t the same as saying no to plastic. A statistic floating from news sources to social media posts and advertisements states that America uses 500 million straws a day. USA Today reported that it’s all just a guess designed to make the problem seem big enough for people to feel motivated to make a change.
The more prominent issue with plastic straws lies in the harm it does to animals and the 18 billion pounds of plastic waste that flows into oceans annually. Plastics never disappear either. Plastics can be recycled a concise number of times before the material becomes unusable. With less than a fifth of plastics recycled globally, there remains one place for them to end up: the ocean. Plastic breaks down into microplastics smaller than dust and sea animals, including fish and birds, consume them unknowingly. It also ends up in sea salt, tap water, and shellfish.
Today, straws are made from polypropylene which is created by stringing together molecules of propylene gas. This creates a thin cylinder that doesn’t weigh enough to follow the process of mechanical recycling. They are dropped through sorting screens with other materials that are too small to separate, and then they are disposed of as garbage. The first modern straw was invented by Marvin Stone, who came from the cigar industry. The first straw was made of paper in 1888, and the plastic straw was first mass-produced in 1969.
Reusable metal straws pose a safety threat, especially towards people with mobility or strength issues. For these people, straws give them independence in the act of drinking. Without straws, many wouldn’t be able to drink without assistance, and even then, it would end in a lot of spilling. On Jul. 11, The New York Times reported on the death of Elena Struthers-Gardner, who was a British disabled woman. She fell while holding a cup with a metal straw secured in the lid of the cup. Struthers-Gardner landed with the metal straw puncturing her eye socket, killing her. The coroner’s advise to metal straw users, was to not use them in cups that would hold it in place. This was the first death caused by reusable straws, with other injuries ranging from chipped teeth to children who were harmed by them. People who are disabled are advised by environmentalists to use paper and compostable straws.
Paper straws have a reputation of not giving a good consumer experience since they fall apart in drinks and mouths. Compostable straws are only good for the environment if they are disposed of properly. They are made to be disposed of in industrial compost facilities and if they aren’t, then they follow the same process as plastic straws.
Silicone straws are the best reusable option since they are safe for children and people who are disabled. The production of silicone, like single-use plastic, is not the most environmentally friendly since it involves petroleum. Since silicone lasts longer, the silicone straw is more environmentally friendly than single-use plastic straws. Overall, the most ecologically friendly option lies in reducing. If you do not need a straw to drink, then merely declining will prevent one more straw from being produced.
For decades now, marketing has found ways to make consumers feel good about their purchases. As the environmental crisis continues, and society works to find solutions, advertisements provide their customers with the excuse that their product is good for the environment. President Trump’s 2020 campaign jumped on this marketing bandwagon with their “Trump Straws” stating, “Liberal paper straws don’t work. STAND WITH PRESIDENT TRUMP and buy your pack of recyclable straws today.” This marketing technique works. The New York Times reported that 55,000 packs of “Trump Straws” had been sold, thousands more than their marker campaign. With a dozen different types of reusable straws for sale, each one saying that they’re good for the environment, and social media explaining that we need to save the turtles, consumers are left making impulse decisions. And then news of a British disabled woman dying by the movement leaves some consumers sticking with the single-use straws they’ve known their whole life. The best option is to decline the stray if possible, but if not, invest in a silicone straw that will last years, and if it’s an emergency, try a paper straw.