Americans Throw Out Millions Of Plastic Straws Daily. Here's What's Being Done About It07:28
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Americans discard approximately 500 million plastic straws every day. (manfredrichter/Pixabay)MoreCloseclosemore
Americans discard approximately 500 million plastic straws every day. (manfredrichter/Pixabay)

Americans discard millions of plastic straws every day.

In the U.K., estimates are about 8.5 billion per year, prompting Prime Minister Theresa May to call single-use plastics "one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world," and to promote legislation that would ban them. In the U.S. and Canada, the bans are being taken up by individual cities, like Malibu, California, and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Here & Now's Robin Young talks with Nick Mallos (@NickMallos) of the Ocean Conservancy about the fallout from single-use plastics.

While Mallos acknowledges plastic straws are still needed in some cases — such as in hospitals and for people with disabilities — he encourages people to look at other alternatives like glass, metal or even paper straws.

“I think it's just taking a moment to step back and think about what are other options out there that still deliver the same utility and properties that we want from that straw,” Mallos says, “but perhaps without the unintended, end-of-life impacts that they do deliver to the environment.”

Interview Highlights

On the enormous amount of plastic debris in the environment

“I've been very fortunate to travel the world to look at the issue of plastics on beaches in the ocean. And two things that you notice is one, unfortunately it is everywhere, and two, there's a lot of it. There's a lot of plastic debris out there. You know, remote places like Alaska you see large amounts of debris, massive fishing nets, and other places like Hawaii and the beaches of Southeast Asia, you see a lot of consumer products like bags, bottle caps and specifically, straws. So we know there's a lot of debris out there. We know there are a lot of straws out there, and volunteers through Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup have collected some 3 million straws worldwide on just a single day's effort. And so while straws may be just one product — they may just be a small percentage of what's out there — you know, that's still 3 million fewer items that are in the ocean because of volunteers' efforts that could otherwise endanger wildlife.”

On how plastics impact marine life

“We know that some 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean every year from land. And to put that into perspective, that's one New York City garbage truck full of plastic going into the ocean every minute of every day for an entire year. So it's a staggering amount. And you know, more than 800 species of marine animals are now known to be impacted by plastics. And you know, whether it's a straw or whether it's a bottle cap, those items can be eaten by animals, and they pose threats through getting stuck in their digestive tracks. It can tear their stomachs. It can get stuck in their nose or their nostril like you saw with that turtle. So these products and plastics in their entirety are problematic, but what's equally if not even more concerning is that over time when these materials are in the ocean, they begin to break up into smaller and smaller pieces. And as that single straw breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, a much broader range of the food chain can then ingest those pieces of plastic ranging from the smallest things like zooplankton or clams or oysters, all the way up to sea turtles, all the way up to the great whales, like the blue whale and humpback.”

"Some 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean every year from land. And to put that into perspective, that's one New York City garbage truck full of plastic going into the ocean every minute of every day for an entire year."

Nick Mallos

On what people can do to stop the flow of plastic into the oceans

“There is no silver bullet. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the issue, but I think when we look at this problem, it's a massive problem, and we all have a role to play. And we as individuals, starting with things like straws, starting with things like taking your reusable bag or reasonable coffee mug to the store, is an action that we all — as a single individual — can do. And when you take that single activity or that single action and roll that up collectively as a global society, it does yield very real impact for the ocean. But we also need to see leadership and proactive decisions by governments to put in place policies that are addressing the most problematic materials or products, are encouraging and incentivizing companies and industries to be making investments in the right innovation. And then lastly, we need industries to step up and ensure they are addressing some of the challenges that … currently exist with their packaging and the materials they use. And also look at things like fundamental access to waste collection and recycling, and many places around the world where it currently does not yet exist."


Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Americans throw out 500 million plastic straws every day. That number is based on questionable research, as a number of our listeners have pointed out.

This segment aired on May 2, 2018.

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