In August 2015, a video was posted to Youtube that shocked people around the world. A university research team that was exploring the coast of Costa Rica found a sea turtle with something in its nose. They took a video of them removing the object. The video was 8-minutes long and the turtle was in clear pain throughout. In the end, the object trapped in the turtles nose turned out to be a 10cm-long plastic straw.
▲ A research team at Texas A&M University removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle off the coast in Costa Rica (Photo courtesy of Youtube’s Sea Turtle Biologist)
The first humans to use straws in history were ancient Sumerians, who established the Mesopotamia civilization. When they drank beer, they made straws out of dry wheat. The artificial straw was invented in 1888 by Marvin Stone, an employee of a cigarette manufacturing factory in Washington, D.C. After work, he was drinking whiskey at a bar when the idea hit him: if he made a straw using the same paper used for rolling cigarettes, he could taste the alcohol properly. He established a straw manufacturing factory and earned huge profits.
Now, however, straws are a major culprit of plastic pollution and discarded straws have become a major nuisance. Because they are difficult to wash, the vast majority of straws are thrown out. As voices calling to reduce the usage of plastic straws gains strength, countries worldwide are starting to regulate their use.
Since early May of this year, plastic straws disappeared from 54 Starbucks stores in London and Manchester in the UK. They instead provide paper straws. JD Wetherspoon, the largest pub chain in the UK, also began using paper instead of plastic straws in their over 900 pubs early this year. The change isn’t just affecting the UK. On May 24, New York City Council proposed a bill to replace plastic straws with paper or metal ones. Canada and Switzerland are also witnessing similar movements.
Rafael Espinal, the democratic party city council member in New York who proposed the anti-plastic straw bill, said that 500 million straws are thrown away every day in the United States. His bill includes a fine of 100 USD (about 108,000 KRW) if businesses provide plastic straws.
However, those against the plastic straw ban are also on the move in America. On the same day the bill was passed, a McDonald’s shareholders’ general meeting rejected a suggestion to remove plastic straws. Sum of Us, a civil organization with stakes in the company, proposed the removal of the 95 million plastic straws that are used every day at 36,000 McDonald’s stores worldwide. However, only 8% of the shareholders supported the proposal. McDonald’s stance was that they cannot concentrate their environment budget on plastic straws.
In Vancouver, Canada, restaurants and pubs will not be able to use plastic straws from next June. The same law will be implemented in January for Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Airlines are also joining the effort: Alaska Airlines is replacing the plastic coffee stirrers used on their flights with wooden ones.
▲ U.K.’s Refill Campaign poster from March 2018. Instead of buying bottled water in disposable plastic material, the campaign called for people to carry empty bottles and receive free refills from participating shops with stickers. (Photo courtesy of Green Hat Website)
The U.K. is the most proactive nation at the government level. Last month, the Secretary for Environment Michael Gove announced plans to prohibit plastic usage in straws and beverage stirrers. The daily newspaper “The Independent” also launched a campaign to “Cut The Cup Waste.” As such, environment-friendly movements are on the rise in the U.K. Unlike its American counterpart, McDonald’s U.K. decided to replace plastic straws with paper ones in England and Ireland, beginning in September.
▲ Eco-friendly campaign from Starbucks (Photo courtesy of Starbucks)
On July 9, Starbucks announced plans to remove all plastic straws from their stores worldwide by 2020. It came a week after the prohibition of plastic tableware and straws in Seattle, Washington, where the Starbucks headquarters is located.
Plastic straws are being ousted everywhere because plastic products are increasingly being criticized as pollutants. Straws are the most commonly used form of plastic. However, businesses fear the increase in costs and some have expressed opposition to the plans. This has started a kind of “straw wars.”
Tetra Pack, a global food packaging company based in Switzerland, has explained the need for plastic drinking straws to numerous governments. They vowed to continue explaining that straws have a small impact on the environment. Reporting on the topic, the New York Times assessed that many hotels, airlines, and cruise lines are not joining the ban on plastic straws. They expect that there might be a backlash to the expansion of the ban on straws.
▲ Starbucks has recently started using paper straws (Photo courtesy of Starbucks)
What about the Republic of Korea? The government plans to reduce plastic waste by 50% by 2030 and it banned the use of plastic take-out cups inside cafes on Aug. 1. However, plastic straws are still in use. They are not even categorized as “one-time use” disposables. According to experts, instead of the current law that categorizes specific items as disposables, they should be designated by their usage and material. At the recycling companies that are responsible for the final step of the waste management, plastic straws are burned or buried as “regular waste” instead of being recycled.
At a recent Cabinet meeting, the Korean government announced a plan to ban plastic straws and cups at cafes in phases by 2027. The first solution is developing a substitute. Paper straws are being considered, but their solidity is the issue. If they are made stronger, the per-unit price rises. The inside of paper cups must be coated for cold drinks, which also results in higher costs. For small businesses, the burden of expensive substitutes is quite hefty.
▲ Plastic-free poster from Greenpeace (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace)
In the end, whether or not the ban on plastic succeeds will hinge on the quality and the cost of substitutes. This is not only a challenge for Korea, but for the whole world. Humans have been using artificial straws for more than a century now. While originally made of paper, advances in petrochemistry meant plastic straws soon took over as they are 10 times cheaper and easier for mass production.
However, one plastic straw takes 500 years to break down. Sometimes, humanity and the preservation of the environment must be prioritized over production costs and profits.
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