Beware "The Plastics"

by Martha Merrow

photography courtesy of iStock

If you have social media, chances are you’ve seen that traumatic video of a turtle struggling to breathe with a plastic straw stuck in its nose. It gripped Twitter for months, receiving thousands of views and comments.

The video, and the conversation around plastic wastes, resurfaced this summer and has since become a crucial turning point as the next wave of a new form of cultural environmentalism: the anti-straw movement.

Celebrities and other high-profile figures have lent their support to the movement, including people like Tom Brady, just one of the many celebrities who vowed to never use plastic straws again. Others have taken it a step further to promote the United Nations Department of Environment and their work to lessen plastic trash in the oceans.

Brady, of course, got the idea from his environmentalist wife, Gisele, and tagged more celebrities like Serena Williams and Elliot Tebele to follow in their lead.

Many cities across America, including Malibu, Berkeley, Seattle and Fort Myers, have passed legislation to ban straws all together.

Jackie Nunez, an environmental activist, began “The Last Plastic Straw” project in her hometown of Santa Cruz, to raise awareness for trash and debris in the ocean.

“The straw is a start. It’s a gateway issue,” Nunez told the Santa Cruz sentinel.

Meanwhile, viral hashtags and slogans like “f*** straws,” “stop sucking” and “refuse the straw” spread the movement’s message online. In response to millennial outcry, Starbucks recently pledged to phase out all plastic straws within the coming year.

The anti-straw movement is not the first or last socially driven environmental trend. “Package free” and “zero waste” coincides with minimalism, a new lifestyle approach consisting of simplified clothing and decor.

These movements gain following and widespread traction on the heels of celebrities and other cultural gurus who promote the cause on social media, or through their personal branding.

The Package Free Shop, based in Brooklyn New York is an entire retailer and lifestyle blog dedicated to household, kitchen and beauty products packaged in reusable glass and silicon.

All of these quite literally “package well” into cultural phenomenon and trend—to live more minimalist, use less plastic and wrap it all in rose gold and glitter.

Yet the anti-straw movement, much like the package-free trend and most public campaigns, ironically still seems to thrive off consumerism. Hip new straw startups are marketing towards millennials, profiting off the latest buzz around environmentalism. Companies like Hummingbird, Terrain and U Konserve sell metal and glass straws at stores like Urban Outfitters, for upwards of $24 a set.

Yet straws, although harmful to the environment and excessively wasteful, make up just 4% of the total trash by piece—and much less by weight, according to statistics provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education.

In reality, fishing gear—lines, nets and tools—comprise most of the ocean’s waste. According to National Geographic, the great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area larger than Texas, is comprised mostly of abandoned fishing material.

“For every pound of tuna we're taking out of the ocean, we're putting two pounds of plastic in the ocean," ocean scientist Sherry Lippiatt told US News. Lippiatt is the California regional coordinator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's marine debris program.

Oceanographer Kara Lavender Law doubts the power of a straw ban.

“Bans can play a role," she said to US News, "but we are not going to solve the problem by banning straws."

In the end, the idea of collectively coming together to stop eating fish makes much less of a catchy slogan—it probably wouldn’t fit into its own hashtag. But the internet, with help from the coolest celebrities, influencers, and stores, tends to pick and choose the social issues Americans see and care about today. These issues, although still pressing, are the ones easiest to market.

Although straws and plastic packaging definitely post a threat, tackling our own hyper consumerism within American culture is perhaps our biggest fish to fry: one that is perhaps avoided because of the world’s heavy and undeniable dependence on the meat and fishing industry. Feeding into more marketing ploys and material based solutions, however, could likely lead us astray.

The solution may not be as easy as purchasing a rose gold straw; it probably requires a fundamental restructuring of American culture, diet, and way of life. Until then, we keep sucking.