This story is part of Planet or Plastic?—our multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.
The seemingly harmless plastic straw, a tool found in Slurpees, take-away drinks, and cocktails, is just one of the many plastic products endangering Australian marine life. While not the biggest pollutant found in our oceans, the plastic straw has become the centre of environmental campaigns all over the world due to its diminutive size and dangerous impact on marine wildlife.
The small, lightweight plastic tube is often not properly recycled and thousands can be seen littered across Australian beaches. Fish and marine creatures often mistake straws for food, choking, or puncturing their stomachs. Recently a video of a straw being pulled from a turtle’s nose went viral.
Watch researchers pry a drinking straw from the nostril of an olive ridley sea turtle. Warning: contains graphic content and strong language.
While straws are a common utensil these days, the plastic straw was not so widespread a decade or so ago.
“Ten years ago, straws weren’t everywhere. It used to be at a bar, you’d get a straw. Now you order a glass of ice water and they put a straw in it,” says Douglas Woodring, founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance, a Hong Kong based group that is working to reduce ocean trash.
“Part of it, I suspect, came from people’s fear of germs,” says Woodring.
The popularity of the plastic straw has meant tons of plastic litter in our oceans. To combat this, campaigns such as the Last Straw are calling on venues and individuals to boycott the plastic straw.
According to their website, The Last Straw is about “changing the culture around plastic straw use and disposal from the consumer to the venue. “
Eva Mackinley, from the Last Straw, believes that targeting both consumers and venues is the best approach.
“I saw a lot of waste happening and a lot of disposable attitudes toward plastic, and because it was really within my power when I was starting up to do something in that arena,” Mackinley said.
“Thanks to the momentum of the conversation around plastic waste, more and more businesses are coming on board every day and now it's time to start looking at the other culprits like big franchise.”
So far, there have been over 200 venues all around Australia that have joined and championed the Last Straw campaign.
Recently Giant supermarket and Woolworths have pledged to stop selling plastic straws by the end of 2018, with Coles following, promising to ban plastic packaging from their stores.
While a singular plastic straw may not seem like its doing damage, that singular plastic straw will “outlive” generations of people.
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For Eva Mackinley, change starts with the individual.
“Look at what's plastic in your own life first- try to start by making small changes to your habits where you can- once you start it’s so much easier to keep building on that. Next, look at supporting an organisation or a local politician or a local business trying to make a change, “ said Mackinley.
Next time you order a gin and tonic, forgo the straw and think of the ocean so that in years to come we can celebrate a cleaner ocean for World Ocean Day.
Lead Image: The equivalent of five grocery bags of plastic trash for every foot of coastline spills into the oceans annually. Here, on a remote island in the Caribbean Sea, discarded bottles, wrappers, and straws wash ashore and cover the beach. PHOTOGRAPH BY ETHAN DANIELS, ALAMY