Can Plastic Straws Really Change the World?

Jenna Barackman


Did anyone else rush to the shelves to buy brand new, shiny metal straws as soon as plastic straws were branded as killers of our marine ecosystems? But just how bad are plastic straws, and can banning them really change the future of our oceans, as the World Wildlife Fund claims? Welcome to the first episode of “Dig a Little Deeper”, where we investigate whether plastic straws are really worth all the fuss and the truth behind the plastic straw movement and its so-called green alternatives through the lens of the World Wildlife Fund’s vague statement.



As of this year, there are over 5.25 trillion macro and micro plastics in our ocean and over 46,000 pieces of plastic for every square mile of ocean. Everyday we add around 8 million pieces of plastic to this conglomerate of plastic. So, how have we addressed our dying oceans? You may be thinking, have we put extra funding into new technologies or laborers that could help clean up the ocean to be more efficient and better? Not quite. Or you, dear listener, may be asking: have we approved significant legislation that would prevent or slow the production and consumption of major single use plastic polluters? Surprisingly, also no. Instead companies and legislation have decided to attack what they have labeled as “ocean polluter number one:” the dreaded plastic straw.

Welcome to episode one of Dig a Little Deeper, a show where I investigate claims made about the environment using the three observations of Environmental Geopolitics: defining the role and meaning of the environment, the role of human agency, and the spatial scale of the claim. I’m Jenna Barackman, and today we will be investigating a claim made by the world renowned organization dedicated to wilderness and wildlife protection: the World Wildlife Fund, who claim that if consumers boycott plastic straws, then they can “change the future of our oceans.” But what exactly does that mean? How do they define changing the future? Let’s dig a little deeper.

To start off, I want to look at this claim through the lens of risk and security. In this instance, risk is when environmental features are portrayed as threatening some aspect of our lifestyle or something that is threatening or dangerous. While security is a focus on how environmental features are important in sustaining our lifestyles, or something that is worth protecting for a number of reasons. So therefore, the World Wildlife Funds claim infers that they are worried about the risks that plastic straws posed to wildlife in the ecosystem that this species live in. Since their organization primarily focuses on wildlife and ecosystem conservation, this fits their agenda perfectly. But now I want to get into exactly what this claim is talking about in just a little more detail so that we can dissect it from all angles.

Let’s start with the first question of Environmental Geopolitics analysis: how are the role and meaning of the environment described in specified? In this claim, which admittedly is extremely vague and lacks quite a bit of detail, the role of the environment is defined as a resource we need to protect with vulnerable coastal and aquatic life living inside of it. The environment itself is defined as the entire marine life and the oceans. But again, a lot of this is speculation since the claim only states that banning straws could “change the future of our oceans.” To try and find some further information I investigated similar claims to the World Wildlife Fund’s to get to the root of what they are defining the environment as. To find other definition, I just start at the very beginning to a viral video posted in August of 2015, soon after kick-starting the straw movement. The video depicts the removal of a plastic straw lodged up the nose of a sea turtle as it cries and cringes and pain. It is honestly a really hard watch. Soon after the video is picked up by thousands of news outlets and spread like wildfire, sprouting legislation worldwide against straws. This further proves my point that this claim defines the environment as a resource to be protected, especially from already vulnerable wildlife such as the turtle. Other similar claims, such as one from Tesla Hampton, who was the leader of Oceans Without Borders, a marine observatory, tells a similar story. Hampton called straws “one of the worst offenders in regards to harm to marine life because it has both non-biodegradable and too lightweight to be recycled.” And the international coastal clean-up group also identifies straws among the top 10 trash items found on and near beaches, furthering my point that the environment is defined as a resource in need of protection.

What the claim does not acknowledge or include, however, is how there are many other circumstances that cause harm to marine and coastal life. Air pollution, for example, is a major component of ocean toxicity and causes huge amounts of harm to marine and coastal regions. One-third of all toxic contaminants and nutrients in the ocean and coastal regions come from air pollution, according to National Geographic, so it’s definitely not insignificant. On the other hand, climate change, especially the process of ocean acidification, which causes the death and bleaching of coral reefs- which by the way, coral reefs, house about a fourth of all known marine life around the world, so getting rid of coral reefs would be another huge threat to marine life, probably much bigger than plastic pollution at this point. But I would say perhaps the largest thing this claim fails to acknowledge is how most plastic in the ocean that negatively affects marine life is not directly from plastic straws, and is instead made up of “ghost gear or abandoned fishing gear,” which make up around 10 percent of macro plastics in the ocean. In some areas, however, such as the famous Great Pacific Garbage Patch abandoned fishing gear makes up over 50 percent of the Garbage Patch. Bottom line: straws cannot realistically be the main concern for an organization focused on wildlife protection when there are so many other threats that are left out. And these threats, the other threats, especially ocean acidification, are probably a lot more damaging than a straw getting stuck up sea turtles nose.

The second question of Environmental Geopolitics analysis asks what the role of human agency within this claim or view of the world is. This is yet another near impossible question to answer because the claim is just so vague. But the claim implies that just by banning plastic straws, that plastic pollution issues will be fixed. And then defines the role of human agency is to be more careful and conservative about single use plastics, but also to pass legislation to ban plastic straws and other single use plastics. To find more information about how human agencies define, I again had to look for outside resources. Banning plastic straws is seemingly used as a scapegoat for all plastic pollution issues and as a way to reduce consumer guilt by alternative straw products. Opening up the door for Greenwashing for other products, such as the infamous Starbucks lid. In 2019, Starbucks announced that it was renouncing plastic straws in favor of a “recyclable lid made of polypropylene.” However, just 3% of that material is actually recyclable, which is a prime example of Greenwashing. Secondly, the organization that championed and began the movement for plastic straws, called Lonely Whale, said that the straw campaign was never really about straws. Instead, they said, the goal was to raise awareness specifically about straws to shed light on how single use plastics are damaging and far too prevalent in the consumer world, and hoping that companies alike would take some sort of accountability. The organization itself and other implied elements of the statement say that the role of human agency is to take action through legislation, through banning plastic straws and companies to comply by supplying “greener products” to its customers, illustrated by the further evidence.

The claim itself, however, does not include a number of things that are vital to think about in regards to the human side of things. Firstly, it does not acknowledge how these so-called “greener” innovations, such as the Starbucks lid we talked about earlier, and alternative types of straws such as paper, bamboo, a metal, may actually be far worse for the marine and coastal environments they’re trying to protect. One study from the Center For Accountability in Science spilled the beans on how exactly eco-friendly these alternates are. For starters, paper straws, while technically bio-degradable over long periods of time, take up almost four times as much energy as the production of a plastic bag for one single straw. On the same side of the coin, the production of one metal straw takes about the same energy as it would to create 90 plastic straws. Yet still, alternate straw advertisements cash out on using this eco-friendly marketing. I pulled a few advertisements to read, show you guys just how bad it is. In one ad for the University of Windsor advertising their new metal straws, they said that metal straws would “help you Windsor become more environmentally friendly.” In another ad for Subway advertising their boycott of the straws inside restaurants and the alternate straws offered, they said that by saying no to straws that we are “making a change.” And yet another for a local marketing solutions firm, they called paper straws the best way to “go green.” It’s clear, however, why companies are jumping all over the straw trend, as it is the perfect scenario to Greenwash products, another huge human agency aspect. In fact, research from the CSA stated that almost half of consumers in the United States are more likely to buy a product if it is marketed as eco-friendly. So, clearly companies are in for the big bucks when using terms such as “green” or “eco-friendly,” even if it’s not necessarily true.

Another key human aspect of this claim does not acknowledge is how all parts of the human population will be affected by a ban. Banning plastic straws will have a disproportionate effects on disabled people, especially those with poor motor conditions, who need cheap, bendable straws in order to drink without spilling. Alternative straws are not as easily accessible and cost more money to make, giving an unfair advantage to able-bodied individuals. Lastly, the claim does not acknowledge that if the banning of plastic straws is just the beginning of legislation against single-use plastics, or if they are painting straws as the solution. On one hand, some states have taken the extra strides past just banning plastic straws, and have moved on to a more broad focus of single use plastics. For example, California plans to phase out all single use plastics by 2030, and New York City has also moved to ban plastic bags, though no other major legislation has been introduced since. On the other hand however, 10 mostly Republican led states have passed preemptive laws that would prevent any future bannings of single use plastics. So the movement can only goes so far when already a fifth of the country is against further progress.

The final question of Environmental Geopolitics analysis asks: what is a spatial focus of the claim? The spatial focus of the World Wildlife Fund’s claim is, again, pretty vague. The only spacial contexts it gives is that plastic straws will affect the spatial sphere of the ocean as a whole, so I again look to other similar claims to help piece together the spatial aspect of it. I found this claim is probably mainly concerned with two different kinds of spatial scales: the spatial scale of the straw itself as it biodegrades, and the space to which marine life is harmed. In terms of the straw itself, much of the environmental concern for plastic straws comes from the fact that it is not biodegradable. And instead, over time dissolved into microplastics, which are responsible for much of the plastic pollution in the ocean, even if it’s not visibly as large. The second and main spatial scale they are concerned about is that of wildlife. The Center for Biological Diversity states that it is not only marine life that is affected by plastic pollution, but that birds, penguins, and other marine life that live in and feed near oceans are also affected, often ingesting or starving based on plastic consumption. In addition, plastic straws specifically pollute more spaces than wildlife, as 8.3 billion straws are found on the beaches and around the world, posing a threat to beach wildlife- not only marine wildlife.

What this claim does not acknowledge however, is a key aspect to the story. Despite what the claim implies, not all plastic actually ends up in the ocean. In fact, only about 9% actually does. Instead, up to 91% of plastic is landfilled or incinerated before ever reaching the coast. And even though the ocean is filled to the brim with plastic and plastic straws had become a scapegoat for the issue, the reality is just that 0.025% of plastic pollution comes directly from straws. Yes, you heard that right! 0.025%, not even a percent, is from plastic straws, but is still somehow the biggest deal in the world. In the same way as mentioned before some of the largest garbage patches in the ocean, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is made up largely from fishing materials and micro plastic, of which only 0.025% of straws come from.

So after asking ourselves the three Environmental Geopolitics analysis questions, we can see that the claim has a lot of holes in it and there’s a lot left unsaid. My main takeaways in this investigation would be not to believe everything you see. When the photo of the sea turtle with the straw stuck up its nose was first published I, and I’m sure many of you listeners were outraged. As the outrage began to spread against plastic straws many of my local restaurants no longer gave a straw with any drink. For Christmas that year, I received a set of metal straws because it was simply trendy. I was convinced that plastic straws were the death of marine life, just somehow. Upon further research of the claim however, that banning plastic straws can “change the world,” I found that plastic straws are really not the ones doing all the damage and are probably not the things that we should be worried about, considering they only contribute a miniscule amount of plastic into the ocean compared to other sources like abandoned fishing gear. The alternatives to plastic straws, which I had been conditioned by marketing experts had the potential to save oceans, turned out to be yet another Greenwashing ploy by companies using the term “green” to reduce consumer guilt and sell more.

My overall observations is the sentiment towards the ban plastic straws movement have done a complete 180. I don’t know about you guys, but I used to see it as a green just movement, but now I view it as a crash grab and as a perfect example of Greenwashing to reduce consumer guilt. The reality is that banning plastic straws will not even make a dent in solving plastic pollution issues and that more states must go farther than that and moved to ban all single use plastics to make any sort of progress. Thank you guys so much for tuning in and hopefully I’ll see you next time. Please leave your thoughts in the comments, I would love to see them. Bye!


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Can Plastic Straws Really Change the World? Copyright © 2022 by Jenna Barackman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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