The plastic straw has become somewhat of a ubiquitous symbol of marine pollution. The ‘anti-plastic straw’ rhetoric was accelerated by a viral video posted in 2015 by marine conservation biologist, Christine Figgeneral, but this was not the first glimpse the world had had on the impact of plastic on marine life and the environment. Christine and her team were researching the waters of Costa Rica when they happened upon a male olive ridley turtle with a 10 cm straw wedged in one of his nostrils, which they then proceeded to remove and document.
Since then, governments and corporations worldwide have taken steps towards banning the use of single-use plastic straws; right here in Selangor, as of 1st July 2019, eateries must provide straws to their customers only upon their request. This does raise the question of how much of an impact plastic straws, and plastic in general, actually have on the environment, and why it even matters.
The Numbers to Crunch
An estimated 150 million metric tons of plastic currently swims in the ocean. A 2015 study found that an average of 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up as marine waste each year. Plastic straws make up around 4 percent of that (roughly 2000 tons). While 2000 tons of plastic straws is a mere fraction of the plastic problem, it still adds up to millions upon millions of individuals units, each capable of inciting harm (each straw weighs around 0.42 grams). Another study estimates that there might be anywhere between 437 million to 8.3 billions plastic straws along the world’s coastlines.
While all these figures and estimates help paint a picture of what exactly is at play, it’s hard to visualise a million units of anything, let alone a bunch of plastic weighing 8 million metric tonnes floating in the oceans. Instead, let’s take a look at its impact.
Some of the highlights from a paper depict a rather morbid picture. According to the study, at least 690 marine species have encountered oceanic debris, 92 percent of which is plastic. Of the 690-plus species, 17 percent were on the IUCN Red List, categorised as a ‘near threatened’ species or worse. It is estimated in a report that by the year 2050, the plastic in the oceans would outweigh the fish. Marine life are especially culpable to plastic; not only do they consume plastic as food, they also get entangled in it.
Well, how does this affect us, humans, one might ask. Long-term environmental impacts and our humaneness aside, plastic pollution is pretty adverse to human well-being. Microplastics are tiny bits of plastic, which are less than 5 mm in length, and are a direct consequence of plastic pollution. Long story short, with the food chain in tow, marine life consume these microplastics, and in turn, we consume marine life. Thus far, scientists have found microplastics in a 114 different aquatic species, more than half of which are the kind we eat. The exact repercussions of microplastics on humans are still unknown, however, consumption of plastic of any kind doesn’t sound all that healthy. However, we do know its effect on marine life – they block digestive tracts which results in a myriad of other phenomena, ultimately leading to death.
It’s not just microplastics in our diet that might be cumbersome to us. Toxins in plastic are ingested by fish and other organisms, which inevitably end up in our bellies. The effect of these toxins in humans is much more evident – depending upon the type they can be linked to cancer, interference with hormonal functioning, immune system problems, amongst other conditions.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), also monikered The Pacific Trash Vortex is the largest and one of five such patches in the world, each of which is essentially an accumulation of marine debris. The plastic in the ocean is carried by currents, converging at points where the currents meet. The GPGP has an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometres. To put it into perspective, that’s slightly over three times the area of Spain. A paper indicates that within this area, 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic concentrate the area (79,000 tonnes), 52 percent of which was found to be fishing equipment and 8 percent was estimated to be microplastics.
The Plastic Straw Man
As gloomy as all of this sounds, there’s no need for an alarmist’s stance just yet. An increasing number of countries have taken to banning single use plastic (not just the straws) in some way or another. Technology is being developed and is already in use to aid in the cleanup of our oceans drowning in plastic. While there’s a lot to be done, with hopefully an exceedingly quicker pace, there is still some faith to be had.
Let’s take a step back from the big picture, with the figures and scientific papers, and come back to the topic at hand – plastic straws. The plastic straw is most definitely something of a straw man, and the motives of corporations pushing its ban may not necessarily be squeaky clean. Yet, as an increasing number of people take a stance with notions like ‘it’s the little things that count’ or ‘every small thing makes a difference’, I’d like to do the same, but just for a jiffy. The things we do may indeed be mere drops in the ocean, but like everything else, it adds up. They don’t call it a ripple effect for nothing. Is cutting down the use of a plastic straw or bag every now and then worth it? I’d like to think so.