The last straw: Can anything end our love affair with plastic?

by Charlotte Graham-McLay / 21 June, 2018

A discarded plastic straw lies on a beach along the Spree River in Berlin, Germany. Photo / Getty Images

Our oceans are teeming with plastic waste and campaigns to eliminate single-use items like drinking straws have never been trendier. Wellington is making moves to become New Zealand’s first straw-free city, and the government is considering phasing out plastic bags altogether. But will such bans make a serious dent in our love affair with disposables, or are straws and shopping bags just small symptoms of a much bigger problem? Charlotte Graham-McLay reports.

Whenever she goes out to eat, Kristy Lorson gives her server the talk. No disposables with our order, please. If the waiter looks confused, she clarifies. Nothing that’s going to be thrown away at the end of our meal.

“Once at a restaurant I did my usual spiel and the waiter said, ‘Oh, is that for religious reasons?’

“And I thought, yeah, I guess you could call it a religion,” she says, laughing.

Ms. Lorson and her family haven’t quite taken their “zero waste” philosophy to the level of the American woman who kept four years worth of waste in a single mason jar, but they do better than most. They take their own plastic containers for sushi and takeaways, stash napkins and cutlery in the car to avoid accepting disposables, and even tote their own bags to the bakery rather than using paper ones.

A decade ago, this kind of commitment might have been considered the domain of hippies, but in 2018, governments, institutions, and municipalities around the world are publically wrestling with what to do about the plastic we use and then dump. Ikea has promised an end to its usage of single-use plastics, and the European Union is considering laws against disposables.  

And if you saw that video of the sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose that went viral earlier this month, you might have felt some guilty regrets about your past consumption, and ready to jump on the ban-wagon. You’ve bought your “rose gold, smoothie-width” stainless steel straw - so what should you do next?

WATCH: The impact of plastic on our oceans

Humankind has produced an almost incomprehensible amount of single-use plastic, and scientists say understanding the huge scale of what we’ve wrought is part of the problem. Kara Lavender Law, an oceanographer, was the co-author of a 2015 study that concluded our planet had produced 8.3 billion metric tonnes of virgin plastics - the newly-manufactured kind - since the 1950s.

Try to imagine how much that is; it’s hard, right? You could think of it as 822,000 Eiffel Towers or a billion elephants, but even that doesn’t help much.

The trouble with recycling

The researchers found that only 9% of our plastic waste had been recycled since the 1950s, with 12% incinerated and 79% ending up in landfill or the natural environment. And once it’s out there, scientists say, 1200 species are put at risk of “ingestion or entanglement,” which can make them sick, or worse.

Dr Law said the reason our recycling systems are insufficient wasn’t a technological limitation, but rather a collection problem - we’re not great at putting the right things in our green bins - and one of market forces.

“PET (polyethylene terephthalate) - the water and soda bottles - are the most successful recycling stream,” she said.

“If you can capture that one stream, you can recycle it well. But in the US, with this new natural gas mining, there’s lots of fossil fuel to make lots of plastic.”

In other words, it’s cheaper to make new plastic than it is to recycle the old stuff. In New Zealand, that equation was writ large recently when China stopped accepting certain types of our recycling because, it said, of harm caused to its environment. Many recyclers in New Zealand said the cost of sending plastic waste elsewhere overseas was too high to justify, so it’s mounting up here instead.

While some innovative recycling alternatives are in us, they’re often not sustainable solutions. Microbes that digest plastic, for example, are not adequate to deal with a planet’s worth of waste, and another process that liquifies polyethylene into fuel has a carbon footprint of its own.

At this point, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and turn to some easier wins: plastic straws - which can't be recycled anyway - single-use bags, and the microbeads in facial scrubs and household cleaning products. New Zealand has recently outlawed the latter, in order to stop the plastic beads from ending up in waterways.

Wellington's straw-free aspiration

Meanwhile, Wellington is determined to become the first plastic straw-free city in New Zealand, after Mayor Justin Lester said a straw ban at the city’s waterfront eateries was working well.

Although the movement was voluntary, he said, the Council had worked alongside food retailers close to Wellington harbour - including market stall vendors - to suggest they eliminate straws.

Wellington could be NZ's first plastic straw-free city.

The vast majority “got on board straight away.”

The ban had made an impact further afield than Wellington, the Council said, with the restaurant chain Wagamama not only ending plastic straw use at its branch in the capital, but at all of its global eateries as a result of Wellington’s efforts.

Mr Lester, who said he’d been distressed by seeing “bottles nestled in silt” while diving in Wellington harbour, said he was also inspired by his time living in Germany as a young man.

“They didn’t have single-use plastic bags and they’d take their own crates to do their shopping,” he said.

“It made me realise that if a country with a population of 85 million can do it, clean green New Zealand should, and must, be able to do it as well.”

Mr Lester emphasised that the straw ban was just one part of the city’s overhauled approach to plastics; it had also encouraged retailers to tax or eliminate single-use bags, with some success.

And up the road at the Beehive, parliamentary services - in charge of catering for the complex - said they had switched to bio-plastic straws, which were manufactured from plants and had a much lower carbon footprint than regular plastic.

As well, some retailers are turning to stainless steel or paper straws, and in the United States, a company called Loliware makes edible disposables, meaning you eat the straw after use, rather than binning it.

Bangladeshi men arrange wet plastic straws to dry under the sun before sending the materials to a recycling factory. Bangladesh achieved close to a 100 percent recycling rate for its plastic waste, and thus appears to have one of the most efficient plastics recycling systems in the world, driven by the economic necessity which is associated with poverty. Photo / Getty Images

Blanket ban not good for everyone

But these solutions don’t work for everyone, and advocates for disabled people worry that straw bans might leave their clients stranded.

Prudence Walker, a spokesperson for CCS Disability Action, said people who had trouble with bite control would sometimes clamp their teeth down on a straw, which in the case of paper, would render the straw useless, and in the case of stainless steel, could hurt them. As well, people who could not bring a straw to their mouth using their hands relied on the bendy, concertina portion of a plastic straw to do so hands-free.

“The thing disabled people face throughout their whole lives is that it’s often considered they’re asking for something that’s a nice to have, or a burden,” Ms Walker said. 

“It’s not; they just want to live their lives.”

She suggested that food retailers who wanted to ban plastic straws but were keen to keep a pack behind the counter for people with disabilities, should advertise on a sign at the counter that plastic straws were available upon request.

Dr Law, the oceanographer, said she wasn’t sure if bans were particularly effective when they amounted to merely taking away people’s choice, rather than changing our underlying patterns of production and consumption.

In Ireland, she said, a plastic bag tax had initially seen usage drop, but when people got used to the tax, and it was not adjusted to keep pace with inflation, they started paying for bags and consumption crept back up.

While increasing the tax in 2007 led to another big drop in plastic bag use, it suggests people in Ireland hadn’t exactly reformed their attitude towards plastics - they’d just been dissuaded from buying a particular item.

There are also worries about the carbon footprint of some plastic bag alternatives, like paper.

What was more, people were used to using straws, Dr Law said, and some didn’t want to change.

Why we should sweat the small (plastic) stuff

It’s a difficult truth that we like what’s easy, cheap and convenient. Most of us would have read, for example, that the best thing we could do for the environment is to stop consuming meat and dairy, but how many of us actually consider it?

That doesn’t mean that change isn’t worth making. But if we all stopped using straws or bags altogether, scientists aren’t sure what difference would we notice in our natural environment.

That billion elephants’ worth of plastic waste Kara Lavender Law, the oceanographer, calculated we had produced so far?

A man collects plastic from Manila Bay. Photo / Getty Images

We know it ends up in the ocean but we don’t know where it is or what impact it’s having,” Dr Law said.

“A lot of plastics in the ocean are just small plastics so we don’t know what they were originally.”

Much outrage has been generated by pictures of “trash islands” of plastic waste in parts of the ocean - although environmental science organisation 5 Gyres Institute said the story of one “the size of Texas” was a myth.

The foundation worried that the “trash island” narrative gave people the impression that our rubbish was a problem piled up in a spot far away from us: out of sight, out of mind.

Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres’ research director, said “plastic smog” was a better description of the waste. It was mostly small particles, which were distributed around the world in sea ice, on beaches, on the deep sea floor, and in the organs of hundreds of species.

“Of course there are big plastic items in the ocean, like fishing nets, buoys, buckets, and crates, but they do not pose the same harm that microplastics do,” Dr Eriksen said, adding that microplastics absorbed chemical pollutants, which suggested they should be termed hazardous substances.

“Hundreds of organisms are consuming microplastics, and potentially those toxins are being transferred to them.”

So if we can’t keep track of our plastic, and we’re not very good at recycling it, how can we tackle the problem?

What changes need to be made?

Kristy Lorson of the religious take-away container use, believes that you can make some changes without spending a lot of money. She runs the website EarthSavvy, and has created room-by-room guides to reduce waste in your home.

Oceanographer Kara Lavender Law said the solution needed to come on multiple fronts, because “banning our way out of it” wouldn’t work.

While she said consumers needed to be educated because they were “the bottom line for businesses,” industry and producers needed to come under pressure too.

Justin Lester, the Wellington mayor, agreed.

“When businesses sense that public opinion is supporting the change, they’re happy to engage,” he said, adding that even though it took much more work to bring national or multinational companies on board with reducing plastic waste, it resulted in a “much bigger change” when it worked.

It was imperative to get civilisation off the single-use, throwaway plastic habit, said Dr Eriksen from the 5 Gyres Institute, but he would not focus on consumer campaigns to accomplish it.

Instead, he said, “data-driven, legislative policy” was what made long-term change, driven by focused, science-based campaigns.

Dr Eriksen cited the example of the US ban on microbeads as a success, saying that two years after his organisation published a paper about the products’ dangers, they were outlawed by then-President Barack Obama.

“For nearly 40 years, you have seen industry advocate for consumer responsibility, and burden cities with paying for waste management, while at the same time avoiding responsibility for the design of products containing plastic,” he said.

That was changing now - with Coca Cola and McDonald's among those making small moves to use more recycled and recyclable materials - but the shift wasn’t happening fast enough.

“Fortunately, there are more and more organisations calling out corporations for the polluting products and packaging that they make,” Dr. Eriksen said.

“Making that brand risk public is what’s going to shift those companies.”

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