It is almost too heart-breaking to watch. In the YouTube video, marine biologists from Texas A&M University extract a plastic straw from a sea turtles’ nose as the creature winces in pain. Today that video has been viewed more than 22 million times, drawing attention to the hazard that plastic straws present to animals and our environment.
It has long been acknowledged that the eight million tons of plastic trash flowing into the world’s oceans each year is a growing problem. California banned single-use plastic grocery bags in 2016 becoming the first state in the nation to do so and joining a host of countries including China, France, and Kenya the world over. Other plastic-based products including plastic plates, Styrofoam cups and celebratory balloons have come under the regulator’s eye.
But the plastic straw is drawing attention because of its widespread use and its lack of need. Americans use a staggering 500 million straws a day which are often handed out and used without a second thought. Aside from those who need them for medical reasons, most people can easily do without a straw.
Douglas Woodring with the Ocean Recovery Alliance suspects that the propensity for straws comes from our fear of germs. Following the outbreak of the SARS respiratory illness that infected over 8,000 people and killed 774 worldwide in 2003, he noticed a large uptick in straw use.
Numerous anti-straw campaigns have been waged over the last decade, ranging from the Straws Suck campaign from the Surfrider Foundation to The Last Plastic Straw campaign launched by Jackie Nunez, a kayak guide from Santa Cruz in 2011. And recently, California State Representative Ian Calderon introduced a bill that would ban plastic straws in sit-down restaurants which stirred up a lot of attention with its harsh fines and possible jail time for violators.
But most activists would suggest that legislation, although beneficial to the cause, is not required. Their focus is more on reducing use. Nunez wants to see straws available only upon request which would be a simple way to reduce the plastics problem. According to an article in the Orange County Register, Heal the Bay Vice President Sarah Abramson Sikich believes that a straws-upon-request policy could see a reduction in straw pollution of 60 to 80 percent.