For most kids, drinking from a colorful plastic cup with a plastic straw embodies much of the fun in eating out. Even for adults, the habit stays, accepting a straw with most beverages at restaurants. This use of this staple item seems harmless when sipping a refreshing pina colada at the pool, yet in reality has dangerous environmental impacts.
At a fundamental level, plastic straws are formulated from plastic resin, colorants, and other additives. The material of choice that provides the plastic resin basis is polypropylene plastic, which is the most basic source of the environmental problem at hand; by design, it does not undergo structural breakage easily and has high chemical resistance to temperature changes, causing it to remain present in the environment for many years after its initial deposition. Many plastic straws also contain ultraviolet light filters to slow the effects of sunlight and inert fillers to increase the object’s density, also prolonging the its life. Over that period of time, it can interfere with ecological habitats, choke unsuspecting wildlife, and pollute vital watershed.
Luckily, restaurants and paper supply companies are taking steps to reduce waste from plastic straws. Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group is one of the many restaurant groups that are taking on what they call a “straw upon request policy,” which they add not only saves plastic but also saves the restaurant money. According to the group’s press release announcing their conservation efforts, the restaurant will save a quarter of a million straws a year. In addition to cutting back on straws, companies are taking advantage of the trend away from plastic and creating straws from more sustainable materials such as paper or straws that are reusable in glass, metal, and even bamboo.
Not only companies but state governments are taking a step towards cutting back on straw usage. Much straw advocacy has come from nine-year-old Milo Cress, who founded the Be Straw Free Campaign and has encouraged the governments of Vermont, Colorado, Illinois, and Maine to pledge to cut back on their straw use. In 2013 Colorado’s governor even declared a statewide straw-free day.
Yet despite the gradual progressivism in both the public and private sector that is moving society towards a world with less contamination with wasteful and unneeded accessories, the ultimate voice in the matter is that of the average person, who is both the voter and the consumer. As a restaurant-goer and grocery-shopper, every person has the power to choose whether to further the longevity of the polluting plastic straw industry or opt for safer ways to drink beverages. As a voter and advocate, every person has the power to vote for politicians and policies that make a clear statement against the devastation of what nature remains on the planet.
When next confronted with one of many simple dichotomic choices, like whether to use a reusable thermos from home or a cheap single-use cup and straw from the fast food joint, or whether to vote for the policy that extends the life of the environment we inhabit or the one that condemns it for the sake of our sipping pleasure, consider the power that every person possesses. More importantly, consider how you will use it.
(Matthew Hornung and Olivia Gieger)