Editor’s note: This commentary is by Deb Markowitz is a vice president at Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit; and she is the former Vermont secretary of state and secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources.
I have a confession to make. I love drinking with a straw. I know, I know, plastic straws are filling our oceans and littering our beaches. I’ve seen the photo of the turtle with the straw stuck in its nose that started the public crusade to ban straws, and feel badly about it. But still, there is nothing like sipping an ice-cold drink through a straw. And, I am not alone in this. In the United States alone, an estimated 500 million straws are used every day.
Straws are one part of a bigger challenge. An estimated eight to 14 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year. And while straws add to the problem, the biggest impact to our oceans comes from plastic bags.
Shoppers use 500 billion plastic bags worldwide every year and hundreds of thousands of them end up in waterways and the ocean. Single use plastic bags are estimated to kill as many as 100,000 marine mammals every year. Indeed, scientists estimate that by 2050 there will be more plastic trash in the ocean (by weight) than fish.
Plastics bags are problematic for other reasons as well. The average American family takes home nearly 1,500 plastic bags every year. Twelve million barrels of oil are used to manufacture these bags, and this plastic cannot easily be recycled. Because plastic bags are so light-weight and tear apart so easily, if they are included in single-sort recycling streams they can cause a jam and potentially harm the equipment.
After 40 million people watched the turtle struggle to free itself from the straw on YouTube, a worldwide conversation began on the urgency of addressing the impact of plastic waste in our oceans. One hundred twenty-seven countries, hundreds of local governments, and a growing number of states, including Vermont, responded by adopting taxes or restrictions on shopping bags, straws, drink stirrers and other single use plastics. It is notable that the vast majority of plastic pollution in the ocean was thrown away on land, so a reduction in the use of plastics, even in a land-locked state like Vermont, can make a difference.
Vermont’s new law, which takes effect next July, prohibits retailers and restaurants from providing customers with single-use carryout bags, plastic stirrers, and polystyrene cups and take-out containers. Straws can be provided upon request. Some plastic bags will still be available, like those purchased as trash bags, and the bags used in grocery stores for loose produce.
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Some of the world’s biggest businesses are also taking notice. Vermont’s Ben and Jerry’s led the way with an announcement that it would eliminate single use plastics, including straws, in all of its 600+ ice cream shops around the world. This was followed by similar announcements from many other well-known companies, like Whole Foods, Starbucks, Marriott, and Disney. Even multi-national giants like Ikea, Sodexo, Evian and McDonalds have committed to eliminating single use plastics or using only recycled plastics in the near future.
This is a great first step, and I predict that businesses and governments around the world will continue to act to reduce plastic waste. But they cannot do it alone. All of us have an important part to play.
Reducing our dependence on single use plastics like shopping bags and straws shouldn’t be too hard, but we’ll need to change some of our habits. I still have a hard time remembering to bring cloth bags with me when I shop; and although I have a reusable, metal straw, it’s easy to leave behind. Even so, with the many big challenges facing our planet, it’s good to know that each of us can be a part of the solution to protect our oceans from plastic.