Attention on drinking straws has ignited public response to plastics pollution
More than a third of plastic is used once then thrown away. It may be broken and ground into progressively smaller bits by the elements, but it lasts virtually forever. In the United States, more than 30 million tons of plastic is discarded every year. In the European Union, approximately 100,000 tons of discarded plastic ends up in the sea every year. More than 250,000 tons of plastic in 5 trillion pieces floats on the ocean’s surface, and straws are some of the most common single-use plastic items found floating.
Plastic drinking straws have attracted attention and even inspired bans, taxes, boycotts, and awareness campaigns for several reasons. In the U.S. 500 million straws are used daily, but only a tiny number are actually necessary to drink a beverage. Although they make up only a small percentage of discarded plastics, their size and buoyancy makes them problematic for both water treatment plants and marine life. They’re very likely to be used and improperly disposed of on beaches. Many whales and dolphins, some sea turtles, and 90% of seabirds have swallowed them. Today, single-use plastics in our oceans debilitate and kill wildlife in even the most remote regions of the globe.
Plastics’ Danger to Our Health
The dangers of single-use plastics also are found closer to home — as close as our own bloodstreams. Once straws and plastic refuse break into pieces smaller than 5mm, they are referred to as microplastics. Toxins may be attached to the plastic particles via adsorption, which increases the danger when microplastics such as polyethylene microbeads are consumed directly. They also find their way into the food chain when plankton absorb dangerous chemicals in the particles. The plankton are consumed by other sea life, and the chemicals bioaccumulate in the organisms that consume the plankton. These persistent organic pollutants (POPs) also enter the food chain when they leech into the soil beneath landfills and seep into the groundwater we drink.
The fish we eat get sick when they bioaccumulate such toxins. When toxins from microplastics find their way into the blood and tissue of nearly all of us, they are linked to cancer risk, disabilities from birth, endocrine and immune system problems, and more. The World Health Organization (WHO) has found that most liter bottles of water tested contained an average of 325 pieces of microplastics, with one popular brand testing at more than 10,000 pieces.
However, the WHO stresses that there is no evidence yet of an impact on human health.
Microplastics and Water Treatment
When Joaquim Goes, a research professor at Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, recently studied microplastics in New York City’s rivers with assistance from non-profit Riverkeeper, he discovered microplastics coming directly from sewage treatment plants:
Most of our sewage treatment plants do not have the capacity to filter out these micron-sized particles of plastic. Because they get through the filtration system, they end up in the aquatic systems, and act like vectors for the transport of organic compounds [such as drugs and pesticides in the wastewater that ends up in sewage treatment plants]. When fish and shellfish take them up, you have a way by which microplastics get into food chain.
This river water, laden with microplastics, directly enters the Atlantic. Even fully intact straws are lightweight, so they drop through sorting screens. They are too small to be effectively separated from other materials, so they contaminate recycling loads or are mixed in with garbage.
Long Struggle Ahead
In a continued response to the threat of microplastics pollution, the EU is banning straws, and Britain is urging 53 other Commonwealth countries such as Canada to join its ban. Private actions to ban straw are also underway, such as a Starbucks ban and a movement among Toronto nightclubs to stop serving drinks with straws. These measures come in the wake of widespread bans of microbeads in toiletries and other consumer products.
Also promising is that researchers have found that anaerobic digestion can reduce the amount of microplastics found in wastewater treatment effluent.
Although the damage done by straws has caught public attention, the current activity is only the latest skirmish in a long struggle against microplastics pollution.