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Straw smog: scientists concerned about epic plastic pollution

Up to 8.3 billion straws are littering the world’s coastlines, but banning them is only a small part of fixing the plastic pollution problem

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 April, 2018, 1:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 April, 2018, 8:09pm

Cities and nations are considering banning plastic straws and stirrers to try to address the world’s plastic pollution problem. The problem is so large, though, that scientists say it is not enough.

Australian scientists Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox estimate, using rubbish collected on US coastlines during clean-ups over five years, that there are nearly 7.5 million plastic straws lying around America’s shorelines. They say that means 437 million to 8.3 billion plastic straws are on the entire world’s coastlines.

But that huge number suddenly seems small when you look at all the plastic rubbish bobbing around oceans. University of Georgia environmental engineering professor Jenna Jambeck calculates that nearly 9 million tons end up in the world’s oceans and coastlines each year, as of 2010, according to her 2015 study in the journal Science.

That is just in and near oceans. Each year more than 35 million tonnes of plastic pollution are produced and about a quarter of that ends up around the water.

“For every pound (0.45kg) of tuna we’re taking out of the ocean, we’re putting two pounds of plastic in the ocean,” said ocean scientist Sherry Lippiatt, California regional coordinator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris programme.

Seabirds can ingest as much as 8 per cent of their body weight in plastic, which for humans “is equivalent to the average woman having the weight of two babies in her stomach”, said Hardesty of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

Organisers of Earth Day, which is on Sunday, have proclaimed ending plastic pollution this year’s theme.

Following in the footsteps of several US cities such as Seattle and Miami Beach, British Prime Minister Theresa May has called on the nations of the British Commonwealth to consider banning plastic straws, coffee stirrers and plastic swabs with cotton on the end.

McDonald’s will test paper straws in some UK locations next month and keep all straws behind the counter, so customers have to ask for them. “Together with our customers we can do our bit for the environment and use fewer straws,” said Paul Pomroy, who runs the fast-food company’s UK business.

The issue of straws and marine animals got more heated after a 2015 viral video showing rescuers removing a straw from a sea turtle’s nose in graphic and bloody detail.

But straws only make up about 4 per cent of the plastic rubbish by piece and far less by weight.

Straws generally weigh so little – about one sixty-seventh of an ounce (0.42 grams) – that all those billions of straws add up to only about 2,000 tonnes of the nearly 9 million tonnes of plastic waste that ends up in water every year.

Make that single-use [plastics] culture taboo, the same way smoking in public is taboo
Marcus Eriksen, environmental scientist

“Bans can play a role,” said oceanographer Kara Lavendar Law, a co-author with Jambeck of the 2015 Science study. “We are not going to solve the problem by banning straws.”

Scientists say that unless you are disabled or a small child, plastic straws are generally unnecessary and a ban is a start. These are items people use for a few minutes but “are sticking round for our lifetime and longer”, Lippiatt said.

Marcus Eriksen, an environmental scientist who co-founded the advocacy group 5 Gyres, said working on bans of straws and plastic bags would bring noticeable change. He calls plastic bags, cups and straws that break down in smaller but still harmful pieces the “smog of microplastics”.

“Our cities are horizontal smokestacks pumping out this smog into the seas,” Eriksen said. “One goal for advocacy organisations is to make that single-use culture taboo, the same way smoking in public is taboo.”

Steve Russell, vice-president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council, said people can reduce waste by not taking straws, but “in many cases these plastics provide sanitary conditions for food, beverages and personal care”.

The key to solving marine litter, Russell said, is “in investing in systems to capture land-based waste and investing in infrastructure to convert used plastics into valuable products.”

Even though Jambeck spends her life measuring and working on the growing problem of waste pollution, she is optimistic: “We can do this, I have faith in humans.”