Plastic straws are one of the many types of plastics polluting and harming our wildlife. Humans have been using drinking straws for over 7000 years now. They come in a wide range of colours, shapes, lengths and are used worldwide. Americans use 500 million drinking straws every day for an estimated time of about 20 minutes of convenience. According to the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Clean-Up data, plastic straws are constantly one of the top ten items found on beaches around the world during the Coastal Clean-up. Just to put some perspective on how many straws have been collected in the past, if you were to lie them end to end they would cover a distance equal to California’s 840 miles of coastline. Even though these straws may bring a short period of convenience to people, their short single usage has a very large hidden consequence on marine life (Mallos, 2012).
Plastic straws cause harm to marine life from production all the way to disposal. Plastic straws are made from polypropylene. This is a byproduct of petroleum (Recyclebank, 2016). Extraction of petroleum can cause many environmental issues to our oceans. In the process of offshore drilling large oil spills can sometimes occur such as the 2010 BP Deep Water Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico which killed thousands of marine mammals and sea turtles. Oil spills can ruin habitats entirely, killing all the organisms that once lived there and therefore causing a shortage in food supply for other organisms which may result in disruption of the food chain (Griffin, 2018). Once this oil has been extracted from below the ground it has to be transformed from crude oil into petrochemicals which are used for the production of plastic straws. This process can cause water pollution hazards due to refineries are potential major contributors to ground and surface water contamination which can then enter our waterways through surface run off which then as a result will enter and pollute our oceans causing damage to marine habitats (Hazardous Substance Research Center, 2003).
As you can see from above, before the straw has even entered your local pub, restaurant or your own household, many issues affecting marine life have already arisen. However, the real problem of plastic straws occurs after the production and its single use. There are many ways in which plastics straws can reach our oceans primarily through human error. One main way is through plastic straws being sent to landfills. Once these straws are dumped into the mountains of plastic held at every landfill site they are easily blown out of these sites and into rivers where they are transported downstream into our ocean or alternatively they are blown directly into the sea. Another way is through straws being left on beaches in coastal communities and also seaside resorts globally. I have personally seen the extent of this problem when attending the Full Moon Party in Thailand. A party put on on the beautiful beaches of Koh Phangan where 30,000 people attend each month. Drinks are served in buckets that usually come with 4 or 5 straws in which are usually dumped straight onto the floor after consumption. After the party was over the beach was covered in a multi-coloured carpet of straws which were soon to contaminate the seas. One last way straws can enter our oceans is through overfilled rubbish bins causing straws to be blown out and make their way into the oceans (Casson, 2017).
Once the straw reaches the ocean the real problem begins. Animals such as sea birds and turtles mistake the colourful straws as food and therefore consume them. It is estimated that 71% of seabirds and 30% of turtles have been found with some sort of plastic in their stomach. When plastic is ingested the marine animal has a 50% mortality rate (Stop Using, n.d). It makes the animals feel full when they’re not, causing them to starve to death. As a result of this, plastics will be passed up the food chain until it reaches the food on our tables. Human consumption of plastics will then cause many health issues. It is estimated that 100 million marine animals die each year due to plastic debris in our oceans. Another issue with straws is the inability to biodegrade which means they are destined to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, a process called fragmentation until they reach a size smaller than 5mm (microplastics). Microplastics have many secondary effects and consequences. Zooplankton consume these microplastics and then excrete them in their faeces. This causes the faeces to become less dense meaning it sinks to the bottom of the ocean more slowly. This is causing a change in food dispersion as other groups of marine animals such as fish, turtles and seabirds are consuming the microplastics. These microplastics contain many toxic chemicals and also absorb toxins from surrounding water so when marine animals consume these plastics it can cause organ damage, genetic mutations and reproductive issues and also lead to death. With nearly all species of sea turtles being classified as ‘endangered’ we need to ensure we do everything we can to protect their health and ensure they are reproducing (The New Way Microplastics Are Devastating Marine Life, 2016).
With the issues of plastic straws being well talked about in recent years many eco-friendly alternatives have been produced. Some of these include bamboo, glass, metal, paper and silicone straws. The UK is starting to see some major companies make the jump from plastic straws to paper straws. One example of this is Wetherspoons who in January 2018 have made the change. This change has been pushed by a campaign known as Refuse the Straw which aims to stop pubs and restaurants handing out single use plastic straws which are damaging and killing our ocean planet. However, the issue is still large scale and there are still millions of plastic straws being used each day globally. After reading the damaging effects single use plastics straws have on our marine environment I hope the importance that we stop the use of plastics straws is clear and you will buy yourself some eco-friendly straws and promote the importance to stop using these deadly pieces of plastic. If we don’t act now there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by the year 2050.
Casson, L. (2017) How does plastic end up in the ocean? [Online] Greenpeace UK. Available at: https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/plastic-end-ocean/ [Accessed 5th Feb. 2018]
Griffin, L. (2018) Environmental Impacts of Oil Extraction. [Online] Sciencing. Available at: https://sciencing.com/list-7459738-environmental-impacts-oil-extraction.html [Accessed 5th Feb. 2018]
Hazardous Substance Research Center. (2003). Envrionmental Update. [Online] Available at: https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncer_abstracts/index.cfm/fuseaction/display.files/fileID/14522 [Accessed 5th Feb. 2018]
Mallos, N. (2012). The Last Straw: Reduce Your Plastic Footprint and Hydrate Trash-Free. [Online] Ocean Conservancy. Available at: https://oceanconservancy.org/blog/2012/10/05/the-last-straw-reduce-your-plastic-footprint-and-hydrate-trash-free/ [Accessed 5th Feb. 2018].
Recyclebank. (2016). Because You Asked: What’s So Bad About Plastic Straws? [Online] Available at: https://livegreen.recyclebank.com/because-you-asked-what-s-so-bad-about-plastic-straws [Accessed 5th Feb. 2018].
Stop Using. (n.d) UNDERSTANDING PLASTIC POLLUTION. [Online] Available at: https://www.strawlessocean.org/faq/ [Accessed 5th Feb. 2018]
The New Way Microplastics Are Devastating Marine Life. (2016) [Video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PD88nTu8TTI [Accessed 5th Feb. 2018]