Earlier this month, the City of Seattle issued an ordinance that prohibits food businesses the “use of plastic utensils, plastic straws, and plastic cocktail picks.” This includes disposable plastic forks, spoons, and knives. Single use straws and utensils made from compostable paper or compostable plastic are allowed. Alternative materials such as steel and bamboo are also permitted, but the city suggests that businesses provide those only upon request. Failure to comply lands the owner a $250 fine. This ordinance is a step towards the city’s move to ‘green’ businesses, and even larger commitment to reduce global waste. The mandate follows 9 years after its ban on polystyrene foam food service packaging, or Styrofoam useage.1
How Much Plastic Do We REALLY Throw Away?
I can only imagine, but according to EPA(Environmental Protection Agency) reports, the U.S. recovery rate for recycled plastics in 2013 was 9.2%, or 3,000,000 tons. This is in proportion to an estimated 32,520,000 tons of total plastic waste. Based on the same report, the national recycling rate for ALL Municipal Solid Waste (paper, food, yard trimmings, etc) was recorded at 34.3%.2 In all, the U.S. generated a combined 254,110,000 tons of MSW in 2013. Major media suggests that plastic straws and other drinking apparatuses make up ~4-7% of all plastics thrown away.4,5
Graph: Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2013 Fact Sheet (page 3).2
The public outcry for better recycling practices have been made rampant by social media campaigns such as #StopSucking, #SkiptheStraw, and #StrawFreeCity. This viral video of boat mates removing a straw from a sea turtle’s nose with pliers is absolutely gut wrenching and received >32 million views.
The Real Impact of Plastic Waste on Aquatic Ecosystems
Much of the push to clean up microplastics from the environment stems from the impact that it’s had on the aquatic ecosystem. In 2016, the Office of Water and the Office of Science and Technology at the EPA published a summarized scientific report on the “potential chemical toxicity of ingested plastic and associated chemicals on aquatic organisms and aquatic-dependent wildlife.” Please Read.
Plastic straws have been around since the 1950s, and to many people’s advantage. But, its detriment to other biological environments is not only being exposed but widely broadcasted. Starbucks has announced that it will rid the use of all plastic straws globally by 2020. American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, McDonalds, Royal Caribbean, and Bicardi have made similar statements.6
Will plastic straws go away? Will more plastics be banned? If so, what will they be replaced with? Only time will tell.
Please also check out the EPA’s Trash-Free Waters webpage, which offers conclusive scientific reports, specific case studies, and ways that you can help reduce global waste.