This text was written by Hugo V. Paquette, Ph.D student in strategy and corporate social responsibility.
The straw debate, a story of context
For several decades, the planet has been degrading at an ever increasing rate. In 2005, the UN published an unprecedented report on the state of the world, claiming that nearly 60% of ecosystems are threatened (Gendron, 2007.). This report has been confirmed by the state of the latest scientific work (IPCC, 2018). Environmental degradation is reaching new heights, some now speak of the Anthropocene era to illustrate the period in which humans became a major geological force (Servigne and Stevens, 2015). It is not only the environment that is threatened, it is also the health of human beings and the sustainability of the entire civilization. The environmental issues are today recognized almost unanimous and supported by influential pressure groups and major popular movements. The numerous climate strikes taking place simultaneously in several countries bear witness to this.
The fight against plastic pollution is one of the emblems of this awareness. It catalyzes a questioning of overconsumption, perfectly illustrated by single-use objects, and products from the petrochemical industry whose environmental impacts are considerable. These two movements are complementary, and the plastic straw is one of the great figureheads. The traditional plastic straw is therefore criticized, because it is intended to be discarded immediately after a brief use and that its end of life is polluting. Indeed, when the straws do not end up in the oceans to be swallowed by marine animals (whose shocking images have been around the world) they go in the trash. It is therefore a huge amount of waste that is produced every day because of plastic straws. In Canada alone, Greenpeace estimates that 57 million disposable straws are consumed daily in Canada alone. Only a few plastic straws, made of polypropylene, are theoretically recyclable. However, triage centers find it difficult to put them aside because they are generally too small. In the end, almost all plastic straws, whether recyclable or not, end up in a landfill. The criticism of plastic straws has a strong echo in the media and public sphere because this fight represents a tangible and achievable goal. In this sense, fighting against plastic straws means showing pragmatism and also tackling one of the symbols of overconsumption in our society.
The environmental consequences of plastic straw
Currently, the popular plastic straw is the 8th most common garbage found in the oceans (National Geographic, nd). It is estimated that around 8.3 billion straws line beaches around the world (National Geographic, nd). You should know that a plastic straw is not biodegradable and that it takes nearly 200 years to be able to degrade (GetGreenNow, 2018). The consequences have significant impacts on wildlife. Each year, nearly one million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die from ingesting a considerable amount of plastic (GetGreenNow, 2018). Although plastic straw only accounts for about 0.025% of the tonnes of plastic that ends up in the oceans each year (Global News, 2018). Its small size makes it one of the most harmful polluters since it infiltrates everywhere and is consumed by marine fauna. However, not being biodegradable, the straw never completely disappears; it breaks up into very small pieces that become invisible to the naked eye. These are the microplastics that are found everywhere in the environment (Rochman, 2018). To top it off, during its degradation plastic straw releases chemicals that are toxic to wildlife and the environment.