Do Straws Really Suck?

litter 2“We are drowning the sea in plastic.”

~ Melissa Breyer


“Would you like a straw?” the waitress asked.

I hesitated. While I really like drinking my iced tea through a straw, visions of dying sea creatures and piles of trash on the beaches invaded my thinking.

The photos of sea trash and stories of plastics incapacitating aquatic creatures has really impacted me. Living in the center of the continent high above most other states, I’m far from the oceans, but we are at the headwaters of several major river systems.

According to reporter Melissa Breyer, a major component of trash in the oceans comes from surface water, actually just ten river systems, “Research reveals that rivers deliver up to 4 million metric tons of plastic debris to the sea every year, with up to 95% coming from just 10 of them.” These include “In East Asia: Yangtze, Yellow, Hai He, Pearl, Amur and Mekong; In South Asia: Indus and Ganges Delta; and In Africa: Niger and Nile.” In many countries for lack of infrastructure or cultural norms, trash is just dumped into the streams and rivers or just tossed on the ground to be washed into waterways. Apparently, that is not such a common practice in Europe and the Americas. I guess we manage our trash a little better.

I tried to figure out, for those places that do manage their trash, where all that plastic trash comes from and how it gets into the ocean. Apparently, plastic pollution consists of several kinds. Annie Price writes, “Plastic is a material that consists of various synthetic compounds (like petrochemicals) and semi-synthetic organic compounds (like polylactic acid from corn). Plastics are generally easy to manufacture, inexpensive to make and versatile. You can mold plastic into almost any shape, which is why you see it so prevalently in food and drink containers, toys, wiring, cars and more.”

She adds, “Although plastics do not readily biodegrade, they will break up into smaller pieces when exposed to ultraviolet light and physical abrasion. For example: when larger plastic bottles end up in ocean waters and are then continually exposed to sunlight, they will begin to breakdown.”

Michigan State’s Steve Stewart notes, “Often, large pieces of plastic are gradually broken down into smaller and smaller fragments by weathering and abrasion until they become microplastics. Other sources of microplastics include industrial pre-production plastic pellets and polyethylene bead exfoliants from personal care products.”

Wikipedia defines microplastics as “very small pieces of plastic that pollute the environment. Microplastics are not a specific kind of plastic, but rather any type of plastic fragment that is less than five millimeters in length.” In addition, there are five categories of microplastics, according to Annie Price:

1. Fibers: Fibers come from things like diapers, fleece clothing and cigarette butts.
2. Microbeads: These non-biodegradable plastic particles in facial cleansers, exfoliating products and even toothpaste.
3. Fragments: smaller pieces of plastic that break off from larger pieces and then UV radiation from the sun breaks them down into even smaller pieces.
4. Nurdles: Nurdles are small plastic pellets used to manufacture plastic goods.
5. Foam: Styrofoam in things like coffee cups and food containers.

Around here, very little trash gets intentionally tossed into the streams and rivers. We generally manage to recycle our trash or put it into landfills, where, if properly operated, the trash presents no environmental problem. Of course, litter is a pollutant, and we do try to eliminate it whenever we can. However, as noted, microplastics are routinely sent down the drain and some percentage are not removed in our wastewater treatment plants. Just as for sea creatures, humans ingest microplastics, some of which are accumulated and some just pass through in feces.

Eliminating plastics and microplastics from the environment isn’t an easy process. Each component has a source and pathway that needs to be specifically addressed. Meanwhile, plastics are a critical component of modern life and provide major sanitation and preventative health benefits, so total elimination is impossible. All we can do is take it one step at a time.

I decided to take the high road and declined the straw. I was feeling pretty righteous until the waitress brought me a plastic spoon to stir my tea with. Damn!

Additional Information:
Melissa Breyer, These 10 Rivers Likely the Source of Millions of Tons of Ocean Plastic, November 6, 2017, TreeHugger Daily News
Annie Price, Microplastics Detected in Human Feces (Plus, 5 Microplastic Dangers), December 11, 2018, Dr. Axe
Steve Stewart, Marine Debris: Microplastics – From Facial Scrub to the Great Lakes, October 25, 2013, Michigan State University Extension
Wikipedia, Microplastics

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