Getty Images

Why recyclable straws are far from the answer to our plastic crisis

Let's talk plastic.

15 Aug 2019

Our oceans are overflowing with plastic: 150 million tonnes of it are added each year. In England alone we consume around 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds every year. Despite the recycling systems in place, huge quantities of plastics slip through the loop or are simply dumped into the sea, leading to the death of over one million birds and 100,000 sea mammals who consume or become entangled in the waste.

In May, the UK government announced a ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, coming into effect in spring 2020, in an attempt to curb our incessant contamination of the world’s oceans.

However, although a ban on these single-use plastics is a step in the right direction, it is not sufficient on its own to tackle the huge plastic crisis we are facing. In order to significantly reduce ocean contamination, we must cut down on plastic usage in all aspects of our lives. We grilled Aidan Bell, co-founder of sustainable building materials company Envirobuild, on the endemic.

What’s the problem with plastic?

Plastic is primarily such a problem because of how long it takes to decompose. Plastic bottles break down within around 450 years, while other plastic products such as plastic bags can take between 10 and 1000 years.

When plastics in the sea break down into microplastics, this is often mistaken for food by marine life, allowing it to enter the food chain. Worryingly, we don’t know the effect consuming these plastics will have on our health as humans. When larger plastics are consumed by sea creatures and birds it can fill up their stomachs with plastics which they are unable to digest, rupturing organs and leaving little room for real nutrients, inevitably leading to death.

Most of us will be familiar with that infamous video of a turtle with a straw in its nostril which kickstarted the war against plastic straws. Plastic straws have got such a bad rep because they have been created as a throw away item and are virtually impossible to recycle due to their small size, and so often end up in the sea. However, they actually only make up around 0.03% of total global plastic waste. Although the campaign against plastic straws has been enormously successful and resulted in large brands and chains banning plastic straws it is nowhere near enough.

What can we do?

At work, look into conducting a plastic audit to determine different ways to cut down on your plastic consumption as a company. Even in a more environmentally friendly workspace, you might be surprised by how much plastic you’re all using. Encourage colleagues to bring in their own food at lunchtime in reusable containers or wax wraps which are made of beeswax and a sustainable alternative to cling film and kitchen foil.

Always remembering to bring your own reusable tote bag, coffee cup and water bottle are simple but effective measures for reducing your own plastic waste output. Even though paper coffee cups are technically and easily recyclable, this does not guarantee that they always will be, and you often make a financial saving by bringing your own cup too.

When out shopping, try to purchase local produce as much as possible, such as at farmers’ markets and greengrocers. Not only will you be cutting down on travel as well as packaging, it’s a great way to support your local community. When you do go to the supermarket buy household products like toilet roll in bulk to cut down on packaging as well as travel related costs and emissions.

Where possible, choose products in glass or cardboard packaging over plastic, being far more recyclable. With existing plastic containers, why not try making your own household and beauty products with everyday items like baking soda, white wine vinegar, coconut oils and essential oils. As well as eliminating unnecessary packaging, you’re helping to prevent harmful chemicals from getting into the environment and onto your skin.

While a ban on plastic straws isn’t the answer to our plastic crisis, removing these single-use items from public consumption is not a bad place to start.

Ultimately, the responsibility for monumental change lies with governments to implement legally binding legislation to prevent large corporations from continuing to destroy our environment.

Alongside this crucial governmental action, we can all play our part by following this 21st century mantra in all aspects of our lives: reduce, reuse, recycle.