Straw Wars: The Fight to Rid the Oceans of Discarded Plastic

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

Of the eight million tons of plastic trash that flow every year into the world’s oceans, the plastic drinking straw is surely not a top contributor to all that tonnage.

Yet this small, slender tube, utterly unnecessary for most beverage consumption, is at the center of a growing environmental campaign aimed at convincing people to stop using straws to help save the oceans.

Small and lightweight, straws often never make it into recycling bins; the evidence of this failure is clearly visible on any beach. And although straws amount to a tiny fraction of ocean plastic, their size makes them one of the most insidious polluters because they entangle marine animals and are consumed by fish. Video of scientists removing a straw embedded in a sea turtle’s nose went viral in 2015.

“If you have the opportunity to make this choice and not to use a plastic straw, this can help keep this item off our beaches and raise awareness on plastic in the ocean,” says Jenna Jambeck, the University of Georgia engineering professor whose ground-breaking 2015 study was the first measurement of how much plastic debris enters the ocean every year. “And if you can make this one choice, maybe you can do even more.” 02-23-18

Read more at National Geographic