A globally trending movement has got hotel groups, such as Hilton, Marriott Hotel Group, and The Park, to ban plastic straws in the belief that doing so will cut the amount of plastic waste in the oceans. This fashionable movement has become so hip that sustainable alternatives to plastic straws have been running low. While enthusiasm for the ban is high, and every little helps, it might be worth considering whether this will really make a difference.
The anti-straw movement started in 2015 after a viral video showed a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose. This was soon followed by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a giant floating mass of garbage which made the situation even more alarming.
Yet the anti-plastic straw campaign assumes that single-use plastics make a heavy contribution to ocean pollution. Both the media and the activists often claim that Americans use 500 million plastic straws every day, although this assumption is based on a phone-interview survey conducted by a nine-year old. Similarly, another estimation by two Australian scientists of 8.3 billion plastic straws scattered along global coastlines would, even if all those plastic straws were washed into the sea, only account for 0.03 percent of all the plastic currently in the oceans.
In other words, replacing plastic straws with sustainable alternatives will not make even a tiny dent in the garbage patch, so what would? Ocean Cleanup, a group developing technologies with the aim of reducing ocean plastics, offers an answer. Through surface samples and aerial surveys, the group found that approximately 46 percent of the plastic in the garbage patch comprises fishing nets, while other fishing gear contributes to the remainder.
The impact of this junk goes far beyond ocean pollution. Discarded fishing equipment, known as ghost gear, is recognized as a significant threat to marine habitats and is a very serious problem. But since 1990, there has been an agreement in place which requires that commercial fishing gear be marked so that the buyer can be held accountable if it is abandoned. Combined with penalties for dumping at sea, the system could potentially reduce ocean waste. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization member states have also agreed on the process.
In developing countries, however, where formal systems of waste management are much less common, the problem is much more complicated. In Indonesia, for instance, one study came to the conclusion that fishermen have little to no incentive to dispose of their old nets responsibly unless money is somehow involved.
This is potentially where all that anti-straw energy could come be redirected. In 1990, the world’s three largest tuna companies introduced the “dolphin safe” certification label and tuna-related dolphin deaths declined dramatically. A similar campaign to pressure seafood firms to adopt gear-marking regulations as well as to help developing regions pay for correct disposal could have an even greater impact. This might not be a move that directly stirs up the general public in the same way the anti-straw movement can, but it might actually do something to reduce plastic pollution. Meanwhile, although the plastic straw ban is commendable, perhaps hotels should stop serving fish until fishermen certifiably change their ways – there’s an opportunity to truly raise awareness.
For more information, visit https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-06-07/plastic-straws-aren-t-the-problem