Shedding the Straw Habit
Photo & Video credit: © Shedd Aquarium
Ubiquitous plastic straws are convenient, lightweight and free with purchase. They’re also choking our waterways and becoming a convenience item of growing concern. Americans throw away more than 200 pounds of plastic every year, according to Jaclyn Wegner, director of conservation action at the John G. Shedd Aquarium (SheddAquarium.org). “Many of these single-use plastic items easily wash or blow into the waterways, where they can have devastating effects on animals and ecosystems through entanglement and ingestion.”
Four of the top five items polluting U.S. beaches are made of plastic: beverage bottles, food wrappers, bottle caps, plastic straws and stirrers, notes Wegner. Our lakes, rivers and oceans have become the final stop for our throwaway plastics, with more than 8 million tons of plastic dumped annually into our oceans, says a 2016 report by the Plastic Oceans Foundation (PlasticOceans.org). According to scientists, if we don’t take action, the amount of plastics in our oceans will exceed fish, pound for pound, by 2050.
Reducing plastic consumption is a crucial step in keeping it out of our oceans, rivers and lakes. “For example, if every American chose not to use a straw for one day, we would prevent 500 million plastic straws, enough to fill 127 school buses, from entering our waterways,” says Wegner.
Take the Conservation Challenge
Shedd Aquarium has implemented a conservation challenge called Shedd the Straw to inspire Chicagoans to remove single-use plastic straws from our everyday routine and thus reduce our plastic footprint. This could be as simple as saying no to plastic straws routinely provided with many beverages or bringing a reusable straw.
“We encourage people to nix single-use plastics altogether, but choosing to ‘Shedd the Straw’ is an easy first step,” recommends Wegner. “We recently joined forces with 18 other aquariums across the country to launch a broader campaign called In Our Hands (OurHands.org) that encourages people to take a pass on single-use plastic products because the problem with plastics is quite literally in our hands as plastic cups, plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic cutlery, etc.”
Chicago’s indoor public aquarium is supporting the challenge by eliminating single-use plastic straws, utensils, individual condiment containers and shopping bags from its restaurants and stores. They also encouraged eateries throughout the city and suburbs to join the challenge this past World Oceans Day, June 8, with more than a dozen participating.
Missing the Bigger Picture
An argument could be made to go beyond the single-use straw and replace other single-use plastic products such as coffee cups and food containers, yet straws are a great place to start. “Saying no to straws is one easy action to make a difference,” says Wegner. “Unlike beverage and food containers, the often-accompanying plastic straws are nearly impossible to recycle because of their complex composition: a petroleum byproduct called polypropylene, mixed with colorants and plasticizers. One use and they’re in the trash container and then in a landfill, which means every straw ever used most likely still exists on this planet, although they may have broken down into smaller pieces of plastic. Unfortunately, not every straw makes it into a garbage receptacle; many are littered and, all too often, enter a body of water near you.”
Still, there is a portion of the community that needs straws. David Perry, a history professor at Dominican University (Dom.edu) and freelance journalist focused on disability, parenting, history and education, relies on the bendy plastics to help his 10-year-old son with Down syndrome stay hydrated. “My family is not alone,” he argues in an article he wrote for the Pacific Standard (PSMag.org). “Straws are a wildly successful example of assistive technology for millions of people with diverse abilities, all of whom are best served by ubiquitous straws.”
Lynn Walsh, manager of accessibility and inclusion for Shedd Aquarium, understands that there are people in the disability community that need straws, and has included Shedd’s straw policy and a suggestion to “Please pack one if needed” on the accessibility page of their website. It is the first item in the general Information section. “The straw policy and suggestion is also posted on their Sensory Friendly app, in the Tips/Eating at Shedd section,” adds Walsh. “The app is designed for guests with autism and sensory processing disorders in mind, and helps make Shedd more accessible to all guests.”
For those that have a hard time drinking without a straw, or simply prefer a straw with a beverage, Shedd Aquarium has partnered with Strawesome (Strawesome.com), a maker of reusable glass straws that are handmade in the U.S. Prices start at $6.95, with several options online, as well as the ability to custom design one. “The only thing I can say is that Strawesome sucks in the best way,” says Daedra Surowiec, founder and artist of Strawesome.
For those that want to go beyond just eliminating their straw habit and be more proactive in working to protect our waterways via community projects, The Alliance for the Great Lakes (GreatLakes.org) organizes beach clean-ups and offers an annual Adopt-a-Beach program in September.
For more information, visit www3.WEForum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf, SheddAquarium.org and GreatLakes.org/get-involved/adopt-a-beach.
Megy Karydes is a Chicago-based freelance writer working on a memoir about growing up American as a child of refugee parents. Find her at MegyKarydes.com.
5 Tips to Shed the Straw
- Take the Conservation Challenge.
- Commit to #SheddTheStraw on social media and post examples.
- Bring reusable straw everywhere. Keep some in the car. Several companies, like Strawesome, make it easy and cost-effective.
- Support restaurants and businesses that don’t serve disposable plastic straws with drinks by default. If offered, say, “No thanks,” and recommend they consider taking the Conservation Challenge.
- Help out individually, as a family or as a team to clean our beaches at a Great Lakes Action Day or Adopt-a-Beach event.