Ditching plastic straws is a good start, but the world is still buried in garbage

Starbucks announced this week that it will stop using plastic straws by 2020. It's a good first step, but environmentalists say there's still much work to be done. (EPA / Shutterstock)

Environmentalists praised Starbucks’ announcement this week that it will stop using plastic straws within two years, and it’s indeed a laudable move.

It also barely makes a dent in the global trash crisis.

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This is the part of our gotta-have-it consumer culture that people would rather not think about — what to do with the mountains of waste generated by our need to possess the best, the latest, the most buzzed-about products.

Simply put, we’re running out of places to safely throw stuff away, and we’ve turned our oceans and waterways into sludge buckets for some of the most toxic materials imaginable.

“We have a global contamination issue,” said Chelsea Rochman, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto. “Our mismanagement of waste has come back to haunt us.”

A big part of the problem, she told me, is that most people take an out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach to garbage.

“We throw things away, but we don’t think what ‘away’ actually means,” Rochman said. “We have this idea that there are magical people who take things from us and we never have to think about it again.”

The natural world has been in the spotlight recently thanks to Scott Pruitt’s exit as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Allegations of corruption and unethical behavior notwithstanding, Pruitt was committed to making it easier for businesses to pollute and to doing the greatest possible harm to Mother Nature.

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President Trump already has named Pruitt’s successor, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal- and chemical-industry lobbyist. Trump said he “will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda.”

Props to Starbucks for having a considerably more responsible agenda.

The company said it will eliminate about a billion plastic straws from its stores worldwide by 2020, making it the largest food and beverage company to end use of a high-profile source of water pollution. Starbucks will switch instead to paper straws and sippy-cup-like strawless lids.

Hyatt Hotels followed Starbucks’ lead this week by saying it will stop providing plastic straws as of September, although guests will still be able to ask for one. More eco-friendly alternatives will be made available.

Similar moves have been announced by Hilton Hotels, Ikea, Royal Caribbean, American Airlines, SeaWorld and other companies.

“Plastic straws that end up in our oceans have a devastating effect on species,” said Erin Simon, director of sustainability research and development at the World Wildlife Fund. A hard-to-watch 2015 video showed rescuers struggling to remove a plastic straw from the nostril of an endangered sea turtle.

Yet while plastic straws have received lots of attention in recent months — they’ve been banned in Seattle and other cities — they represent only a small fraction of all the plastic trash that ends up in the water every year.

The World Economic Forum estimates that the planet’s oceans are now clogged with 150 million metric tons of plastic, and that another 8 million tons gets added every year. Think of that as a truckload of plastic being dumped into the water every minute.

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By 2050, scientists predict, there will be more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish.

Here are some other stats that highlight the dark side of consumerism:

  • Plastic can take centuries to degrade, so it stays around for a long, long time.
  • More than 9 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced since 1950. About two-thirds of that total is now plastic waste.
  • Plastic waste represents only a portion of the nearly 3 trillion pounds of garbage generated globally each year. The vast majority ends up in landfills.
  • The United States and some other developed countries could run out of landfill space within the next few decades, researchers warn. (The waste-management industry says there’s no reason to worry.)
  • The average American throws out roughly 4 ½ pounds of trash every day.

“When trash is strewn on city streets or in country ditches, it’s an eyesore,” said Marilyn DeLaure, an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of San Francisco. “But even when it’s ‘properly’ disposed of, garbage still causes problems.

“Burning trash releases toxic chemicals in the air, and landfills emit methane — a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.”

Complicating things even more, China says it will no longer serve as a dumping ground for much of the world’s waste. The country has announced sharp limits on what sort of materials will be accepted for recycling at Chinese plants.

As my colleague George Skelton observed the other day, this is messing up recycling programs in places that ordinarily are diligent in environmental protection, such as California.

“There is no one solution to a problem of this scope and scale,” said Mark Gold, UCLA’s associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability. “Ultimately, there has to be responsibility for everything that gets sold.”

Americans aren’t very good at the social responsibility thing. Just look at opposition to California’s 12-cents-a-gallon gas tax, which is now the target of a ballot-initiative repeal movement. Proceeds from the tax go to much-needed road and transit projects.

Opponents of the tax have offered no alternative revenue sources for road repairs. They say money can just be taken from other parts of the state budget, which is, of course, wishful thinking.

When it comes to waste, most experts say an important step would be to reduce or eliminate plastic wrapping of food products. As it stands, nearly everything we put in our mouths comes with plastic.

Our economic peers in Europe and Asia are exploring the idea of what’s called a “circular economy.” The basic idea is that products and materials would be recycled and reused as much as possible by manufacturers, rather than being thrown away.

The trick is getting everyone to do their part.

That means consumers would have to embrace the idea of recycling more than they do now, and it means manufacturers would have to be proactive in reclaiming goods. Many businesses would pass along such costs to customers, raising prices.

And now we’re back in gas-tax land. Everyone knows what has to be done. But nobody wants to pay for it.

“Isn’t that the American way?” asked Travis Wagner, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Southern Maine. Even so, he said recent efforts to ditch plastic straws give him hope.

“It is extremely difficult to adopt laws at the federal and state level because of focused lobbying,” Wagner said. “It is easier for grassroots groups to pressure businesses like Starbucks.”

What this week’s announcements show, he said, is that “there are enough consumers who care to make a difference.”

That’s a start.

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