Every day, Americans throw away 500 million plastic straws, enough to circle the Earth twice, or fill 125 school buses.
That means the average American uses over 35,000 of them in a lifetime. But that could even be a low estimate, according to actor Adrian Grenier of the non-profit Lonely Whale, which started a campaign called Strawless Ocean.
“Conservatively, you can guess that Americans will use on average two plastic straws a day, so 500 million is an accurate estimate. But I challenge you to start paying attention to the straws you get in your iced coffee, smoothies, soda, and cocktails. When I’m in New York or LA the number of plastic straws I receive is often closer to 10 a day.”
Worldwide, plastic straws are the sixth most common type of litter, according to Litterati, an app that identifies and maps trash, and among the top 10 marine debris items according to environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservacy.
Made from fossil fuels, they are almost never recycled because they’re too small and could be made from several different types of plastic. They simply contribute to the massive problem of plastic pollution; eight million tons of plastic is dumped into the oceans every year.
Make it an option
Plastic straws are now the target of a growing movement to reduce their use. Possibly the first of such campaigns, Be Straw Free was started in 2011 by Milo Cress, who was only nine years old at the time. “I noticed that whenever I ordered a drink at a restaurant, it would usually come with a straw in it, and I don’t usually need a straw,” he said.
“This seemed like a huge waste. Straws are made of oil, a precious and finite resource. Is making single-use plastic straws, which will be used for a matter of minutes before being tossed away, really what we want to do with this resource?”
Cress started asking restaurants in Burlington, Vermont, where he lived at the time, to stop providing straws automatically to customers and make them optional instead. Many agreed and his request made ripples nationwide. He says that restaurants that make the switch report a reduction in the number of straws they use between 50 and 80%.
In 2015, a shocking viral YouTube video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw lodged into its nostril gave the movement a boost.
Plastic straws may seem like a minor problem, but they can help tackle bigger problems, according to Grenier. “A straw may be small, but it’s the DNA of carelessness and it just might be a gateway into solving the much larger issue of plastic pollution. They connect all of us, no matter where we live or how much money we make, and they’re an opportunity to start a conversation.”
Grenier has launched a campaign called #stopsucking, with a viukdeo featuring a giant octopus tentacle slapping straws away from the faces of famous people, including physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and model Brooklyn Decker.