THE LAST STRAW – Everyone seems to be banning the plastic non-fantastic these days in the newest example of the environmental theatre that makes the actors feel good about themselves about saving the world. My “Boston Globe” old friend, Jeff Jacoby, writes in his email newsletter (if you don’t subscribe to it yet, why not? Here’s a link) about the actual practicalities of the ban:
Depriving American consumers of throwaway straws for their iced coffees and Frappuccinos will have, in round numbers, zero impact on marine pollution. Plastic waste in the ocean is indeed a serious problem, but plastic waste in the ocean from the United States is not. When a 2015 study in the journal Science ranked the top 20 national sources of plastic marine waste, it found that nearly 28% of all plastic debris in the oceans came from China, the No. 1 polluter, and that Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka contributed another combined 27%. The United States, which ranked 20th out of 20, was responsible for less than 1% of ocean-borne plastic debris. And of that amount, straws accounted for only a minuscule fraction.
A related data point comes from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, which last fall published an analysis of the amount of plastic waste swept to the sea by the world’s rivers. Scientific American summarized the bottom line:
The results, published last November in Environmental Science & Technology, show that rivers collectively dump anywhere from 0.47 million to 2.75 million metric tons of plastic into the seas every year, depending on the data used in the models. The 10 rivers that carry 93 percent of that trash are the Yangtze, Yellow, Hai, Pearl, Amur, Mekong, Indus and Ganges Delta in Asia, and the Niger and Nile in Africa. The Yangtze alone dumps up to an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of plastic waste into the Yellow Sea.
According to the Science X news service, Australian scientists Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox have estimated that there may be as many as 8.3 billion plastic straws on the world’s coastlines. Perhaps that sounds like a lot, but it adds up to only about 2,000 of the nearly 9 million tons of plastic waste that enters the water each year. Do the math: All the trashed plastic straws in the world account for, at most, just 0.02% of the plastic waste washed to sea. And of that trifling amount, a tiny fraction comes from the United States.
In a study of the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch, researchers calculated that by far the largest share of ocean plastic, 46%, comes from abandoned fishing nets. Other fishing gear is responsible for much of the rest. Plastic straws barely enter into the equation.
But such stubborn facts are no match for the good intentions of those campaigning to do away with straw.