The disposable plastic straw is a magnificent piece of engineering: Simple, cheap, durable, and unfailingly effective.
Then, overnight, we abandoned it for wretched paper tubes that wither at the first sign of wetness.
Such an abhorrent substitution might be justified if it served a greater good, but it doesn’t: We created a world filled with useless paper straws for reasons that are flimsier than the straws themselves.
Don’t believe me? Watch the Everything Should Be Better video or read the transcript below.
As you may have noticed in recent years, governments and the private sector have apparently conspired to ensure you can no longer comfortably drink a Slurpee.
The strong, reliable plastic straw now belongs to the ages, and we modern people must content ourselves with straws that immediately turn into pulp upon coming into contact with liquid.
But here’s the real tragedy: All these paper straws aren’t doing squat for the environment. They came for your milkshake, and they didn’t even do it for a good reason.
Paper straws became ubiquitous starting in 2018 when a video went viral showing a sea turtle off the coast of Costa Rica having a plastic straw painfully removed from its nose.
Almost immediately, major corporations such as A&W and Starbucks announced an end to plastic straws, while cities like Vancouver openly talked about straw bans.
By the end of 2021, Canada is mulling a blanket national ban on plastic straws and other single-use plastics.
Ocean plastic is indeed a major environmental problem. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now three times the size of France, and according to the World Economic Forum, if current trends continue by 2050 we’re going to have more kilograms of plastic in the oceans than kilograms of fish.
But if you take a quick look at where all this plastic is coming from, you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that banning straws at North American restaurants was pretty much the least effective way to address this problem.
So where is the ocean plastic coming from? Two places. One: Ghost gear. This is fishing gear that has fallen off of commercial boats and then wanders the ocean needlessly killing wildlife until it disintegrates. Up to 46 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is ghost gear.
Second: Poor waste management in the developing world.
See, if I use a plastic straw at a fast food joint, when I’m done with it that plastic straw goes in a garbage bin, which is then picked up by civil servants who take it to different civil servants who bury it in the ground and cover it with clay.
Notice the lack of any ocean in that equation.
And that’s basically the program throughout Europe and North America: Unless you’re a putz who’s literally chucking your slushie in the sea, your straw’s final resting place is well-removed from any unfortunate sea turtles.
But if you live in a community without proper waste infrastructure, your plastic straw might get chucked in a river or dumped on the beach to be dealt with by the tides. That’s how you get beaches that look like this.
It’s why, according to a 2017 study, 95 percent of the world’s ocean plastic comes from just 10 rivers: Eight in Asia and two in Africa.
The group Ocean Conservancy has similarly estimated that most ocean plastic comes from just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The straw that got stuck in that sea turtle’s nose? It almost certainly came from an Asian community with bad waste management.
But here’s the good news: We actually know how to fix both ghost gear and poor waste practices in the developing world.
With ghost gear, you set up buyback programs with fishers to disincentivize them from simply chucking broken gear overboard. As for poor waste management, countries like Canada are actually really, really good at safely managing garbage.
And the bang for the buck is huge: Kick a few million dollars towards a dump project in Indonesia, and you’re instantly diverting thousands of tonnes of plastic from the ocean.
So with all that in mind, the next time you feel a pang of guilt at the plight of the oceans, ask yourself why the single most visible action against ocean plastic to date was to force millions of people to use crappy technology that does virtually nothing to solve the initial problem.
Read more at National Post
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