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The Sideline Observer

Sports and Culture Commentary

Replacing Plastic Straws: A Band-Aid Over A Self-Inflicted Bullet Hole

Some of the biggest news stories of 2018 have been about states, companies, and cities banning the use of plastic straws. What initially started out as a small movement with the hashtag #StopSucking seemed to blow up overnight into a global phenomenon to #SaveTheTurtles and stop using plastic straws.

It seems like everyone is on the train, from Starbucks and American Airlines to the state of California and Washington D.C. Single-use plastic straws are (metaphorically) going out the window.

Environmentalists and those with general affinities for turtles have celebrated. Rightfully so of course, as reducing the use of single-use plastics in any form is beneficial to the environment. Presently, trash is about as common in the ocean as fish are. Plastic can be found at every level of the ocean, from the surface all the way to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (at the lowest point on Earth, almost 7 miles below sea level).

Our plastic and trash problem is getting worse. Water currents in the Pacific Ocean carry mass amounts of debris (everything from plastic microbeads found in face washes to abandoned fishing nets that span miles) into a standing patch of garbage larger than the size of Texas. Given water current patterns and our garbage disposal practices, what’s now known as the Great Pacific garbage patch will only continue to grow.

So, the sooner we stop putting harmful materials into our environment, the sooner we can reduce our everlasting impact on the Earth.

With that in mind, it becomes easy to recognize that we’re not done yet. Banning plastic straws is not enough to generate the friction necessary for a systemic change in our widespread use of plastics. Instead, we’ve only put on a Band-Aid to mend the self-inflicted bullet-hole in our foot.

Plastic straws account for a minuscule 4% of plastic trash that ends up in our landfills, and only 2000 tons of the almost 9 million tons of plastic that finds itself in our oceans (CBS). Banning plastic straws is only a drop in the ocean (pun fully intended), but we’re on the right track.

First, we have to quit using all forms of single-use plastics. Everything from plastic water bottles to plastic shopping bags to plastic wrappers to plastic cups to plastic utensils. That all has to go. Every bit of plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose, each piece remaining as a scar on our planet. Ridding ourselves of single-use plastics presents us with another problem though: what’s the replacement?

If we want to stop using single-use plastics, we have to develop a range of replacements. The key to that comes in the form of using renewable and sustainable materials. But that’s not all we have to do.

After abolishing single-use plastics, we have to focus on removing plastics as a whole. Plastic containers, plastic caps, plastic phone cases, plastic whatever. It all has to go. Whatever we use to replace plastic has to be longer-lasting and more environmentally friendly.

So, in the grand scheme of things, banning plastic straws will only do so little. If we really want to protect the Earth, we have to do more than ban plastic straws. We have to think and do bigger.

That doesn’t mean you can’t help. It’s as easy as using a reusable metal or glass water bottle instead of bottled water, reusing paper bags or bringing your own tote bags when you go grocery shopping, and picking up plastic you see in the street and recycling it. Take it a step further if you want and stop using plastic utensils, polystyrene (Styrofoam) plates, and plastic cups.

The biggest thing you can do though is make smarter, more informed decisions on what products you buy from what companies. If enough people make changes in their purchasing practices, eventually companies that don’t comply with modern environmental standards will see their revenues suffer, forcing them to change their own product supply chain.

All it takes is knowing what companies use environmentally sustainable materials in their products. Your purchasing pattern has ramifications that go beyond yourself, and when enough people start leading companies will start to follow.

At the end of the day, we can disagree all we want on how to best stop climate change and reduce our impact on the Earth, but you can’t disagree with the fact that plastic sucks and is bad for the environment. Do your part to keep our planet clean! It’s a lot easier and budget-friendly than you might expect.

*The author would like to note that he is not a cynic who thinks the world is going to end and that any effort to stop climate change and reduce pollution is fruitless. Banning plastic straws is a good thing.

-Kareem

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