What kid doesn’t love straws? They are fun and bendy and make it easier to drink from a cup. But they can also be incredibly destructive. Straws can hurt wildlife and fill up our landfills, which, in turn, can be detrimental to our health. This is a big problem because we use a lot of plastic straws in North America—the numbers are staggering.
An estimated 57 million straws are thrown away every day in Canada (with an estimated 500 million in the US each day). It’s almost unimaginable. Many of those straws end up in our waterways, where they can hurt seabirds, sea turtles, fish, marine mammals and shellfish. This viral video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nostril is just one upsetting example of the damage that straws can do. (Warning: This video may disturb viewers and contains adult language.)
Megan Leslie is the president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada (WWF-Canada). She also served two terms as an MP for Halifax and is the former environment critic for the NDP (she introduced the motion to have microbeads added to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act’s List of Toxic Substances). It’s safe to say that she pays close attention to plastic and its effects on the environment.
“We’ve seen fish who have starved to death because they’re so full of plastic that they’re not hungry so they don’t eat or they can’t fit any food in,” she explains. “And there are quite a few experts who predict that 99 percent of all seabirds will be eating plastic by 2050. That’s not very far away, so it’s a real problem.”
She also says that straws can break down into tiny pieces that end up being ingested by smaller creatures, including shellfish. This means that we may actually end up eating these microplastics ourselves without even realizing it.
Another concern is how these microplastics affect our soil and what that means when we eat food that is grown in soil contaminated with microplastics. Scientists are currently in the process of researching this. “There are a lot of chemicals in plastics, and I don’t really want them in my garden or in my soil,” says Leslie.
Thankfully, the idea of reducing plastic straws is gaining steam.
In the UK, McDonald’s announced in March that it will begin testing out paper straws while keeping recyclable plastic straws available behind the counter. Considering how many beverages are consumed at McDonald’s on a daily basis, this is a major step.
In May, the city of Vancouver will vote on a proposed effort to reduce plastic waste by making plastic straws optional. If it passes, servers will be required by law to ask if customers would like straws first rather than automatically providing them with their drinks. There is also talk of charging a fee for straws in the future.
But we have a lot of work to do. Leslie says that the tens of thousands of volunteers who participate in the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, run by WWF-Canada and Ocean Wise, find tons of straws along waterways each year. In fact, plastic straws and stirrers were No. 9 on their Dirty Dozen list of items found last year (they collected more than 17,000 of them), while tiny foam and plastic, which include broken straws, were No. 1. The straws get there because people litter and garbage gets blown out of cars and trucks into storm drains or straight into the water, she says.
It’s pretty gross, but we all have a role to play in making a change. “As consumers, the more we can do to reduce the amount of straws we use, the less plastic will end up in our waterways,” says Leslie. Here are some ideas to help you get started.
1. Get your kids in on the action Katelin Leblond is the co-founder of PAREdown , a site that offers tips on sustainable living based on what she has learned from her family’s quest to produce as little waste as possible. She suggests having an honest talk with your kids about why single-use plastic straws are bad for the environment. Have them think about all of the places they may encounter straws (restaurants, movie theatres, friends’ houses) so that they’re ready to say “no” when there’s an opportunity. Getting your kids on board with this may help keep you on track, too. “Often, kids form habits faster than parents,” she says, “and they can actually be the catalysts for change in their families by offering helpful reminders.”
Leslie suggests that signing your kids up to be part of a shoreline cleanup is another way to get them involved. “Organizing a shoreline cleanup is really easy,” she explains. “At shorelinecleanup.ca, you can see if there’s one in your area. If there isn’t, you can organize one. Kids can participate, too, and it’s a powerful thing for them to see the implications of the waste they produce. It’s important for them to understand that it can harm animals and that we all have to do our part.”
2. Use reusable bottles instead of juice boxes “Juice boxes are particularly bad because they’re usually not recycled and just thrown away,” says Leblond. “If they are recycled, the straws are often left inside or pushed down, so they are considered contaminated waste and can’t be recycled.” Make sure to use reusable containers for any meals you pack for your family.
3. Buy some reusable straws If your kids are set on straws (or someone in your family needs them for accessibility reasons), Leblond says that reusable ones are the way to go at home or on the road. “I tend to choose products made from materials that can return to nature or be recycled over and over again easily,” she says. For these reasons, she recommends three types: stainless steel, glass, and 100 percent bamboo straws made from hollowed-out bamboo shoots. Personally, she uses both bamboo and stainless steel straws. The stainless steel ones are the most durable and come in different options, such as cocktail size, which are great for kids. They also have straight and bendy options.
4. Get creative with straws you’ve already purchased If you have a stash of single-use plastic straws at home, consider using them for art and science projects so they won’t go to waste. Bonus: That necklace crafted by your preschooler out of pieces of straws will look lovely on you, dahling!