Last month Starbucks announced plans to stop serving beverages along with plastic straws by 2020. This is a huge indicator for many changes to follow soon. Just this year, many large international hotel chains around the world have announced similar plans to ban plastics from their properties. The war against straws may seem sudden to some, but this is the fruit of many years of hard work by several activists, environmentalists and small grassroots groups that have been campaigning to fully eliminate use of plastic straws and stirrers in restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, cafeterias, and so on.
Marvin C Stone patented the modern drinking straw, made of paper, in 1888. It gave a grassy unsatisfactory taste to his rye. Today, drinks are sold from street-side coconut water stalls to the fanciest restaurants. They are made from a formulated blend of polypropylene resin, colorants, and other additives. Manufactured by small scale units, it costs about `15 lakhs for a machine to manufacture 15,000 pieces per hour.
It is guesstimated that Americans alone use 500 billion straws annually. Being lightweight, easy to use and throw, straws make a significant proportion of the total plastic pollutants. They are so flimsy, they can’t be reused or recycled after a single use. Unimaginable quantities of straws enter various waste streams everyday. If a plastic straw gets into a trash can and then to a landfill it will stay there for centuries, and most likely be carried away by erosion. Either way, the wind eventually carries significant portion of straws to the oceans.
Once straws are in water, they can be ingested by marine animals that mistake them for food and choke on them. Some animals get straws jammed into orifices, like the video of the turtle with a straw in its nose that went viral. Studies have found that 71% of seabirds and 30% of turtles ingest plastic and this greatly increases their mortality rate. Microplastics are defined as extremely small pieces of plastic debris in the environment resulting from weathering and gradual disintegration of plastic wastes. These semi-degraded plastic bits are easily ingested, leach toxins into the water, and ultimately blanket the ocean floor.
Plastic straws also break down into microplastics. Fortunately, with gaining awareness against using straws, several alternatives are popping up. Locally available options include glass straws, stainless steel straws, paper straws and my personal favorite – bamboo straw. The fight against plastic straws is incremental. It involves convincing one inventory manager or shop owner at a time to stop ordering plastic straws and choose a biodegradable or reusable option.
Best is to simply stop offering straws to customers and make it known that this is part of a no plastic policy. As a customer you too can start spreading awareness by refusing a straw. This must be done when ordering any beverage. Once it is served, refusing the straw thereafter makes it wind up in the garbage anyway. So before you order iced coffee, movie theatre drink, milkshake or even coconut water – remember to say no straw! You are saving more than you think.
The writer is an architect, urban designer, dancer and chief designer at Shilpa Architects