Plastic Straws Whether You Want ’em or Not

For every major cultural change, there is a pivot point, a moment when public opinion turns from “meh” to outrage, from “who cares?” to WTF, from “That can’t be true” to “Whoa, we’ve got to stop this.” You can call it a Weinstein moment.

For plastic straws, that moment has arrived.

Having a Plastic Straws Moment

Removing the plastic strawAnd a sea turtle made all the difference. Watching that bloody straw pulled from the sea turtle’s nose illustrates the very definition of empathy. We know how we would feel in the same situation and it isn’t good. My stomach churned just looking at it.

Plus, 17-year-old Milo Cress of Burlington, Vermont, has been waging war on single-use plastic straws since he was nine. He began letting people know the dangers of discarded plastic straws long before that poor turtle suffered through its trauma.

Plastic Straws in Every Glass

Here’s the thing, though: restaurants still put those damn plastic straws in every glass they bring to the table. When ordering iced tea or even water, I have to remember to say, “No straw, please.” Otherwise the glass will arrive with plastic straw in place. Recently, I have been more diligent about my request because of gum surgery that made sucking on a straw a no-no.

soda, plastic straws, glasses of soda, colaEven when I succeeded in getting a glass sans straw, however, I had to do it all over again on the refill because it comes with straw in place. This is particularly annoying when the server brings a refill on his/her own initiative so I don’t even get the opportunity to reject the straw.

And for what? Is there some reason most people can’t drink directly from a clean glass? We used to do that. We also used to use paper straws. If you left them in the drink too long, they’d get soggy and collapse. That’s probably why plastic replaced them. But left in water, paper straws just lose their shape and break up — a big advantage for ocean creatures.

I wish servers were trained to ask: straw or no straw? We have reached the pivot point, but it’s going to take a while for everyone to get the message.

The Volume of Plastic Waste

The sheer volume of plastic waste in this country astonishes and sickens me. I notice this more because, odd as it may sound, we no longer have a cat. We take our recyclables to the town transfer station so it is easy to see which material accumulates the fastest. When we had a cat, and thus were buying canned cat food, metal cans made up the largest component of our recyclables. With kitty gone, we see the plastics building up, overflowing their bin, and driving us to visit the transfer station more often. There, the trailer is often piled high.

I used to feel virtuous for recycling all plastic, including straws, Now, however, I have learned that plastic straws often fall through the sorting mechanisms. And, presumably, into the noses of sea turtles.

Paper Instead of Plastic

At the supermarket, I request paper instead of plastic and refuse plastic bags altogether whenever possible.I keep several reusable grocery bags on the passenger seat of my car so I won’t forget to bring them inside. Still, it seems like checkout crew gets a bonus for every plastic bag they give you, so eager are they to provide one.

trash, plastic, clamshell containers, discarded food, food wasteFoods that used to come in cellophane bags or cardboard cartons, glass bottles or metal cans, now come in plastic. Clamshell containers are ubiquitous. Eggs, which once came in recycled paper containers, have moved to Styrofoam and plastic. Organic eggs, in particular, announce their unmarred status via clear plastic. Even restaurant “doggy bags” have converted to plastic.

I have been in cafeterias where all the food — not just takeout — is served in plastic containers. They use disposable plastic utensils to avoid the cost and work of actually, you know, washing dishes. The resulting trash gets piled high in overflowing bins to be disposed of somehow, somewhere. Does anyone know?

Banning Plastic Bags

Last month, Sudbury MA, where we lived for 37 years, banned plastic bags and single-use plastic water bottles altogether. We still shop there a lot and now we get paper bags without even asking. Yay! The new Whole Foods has recycled cardboard containers for the salad bar and other take-away foods. It’s a breath of fresh air. Dunkin Donuts still uses Styrofoam hot cups instead of carboard, though, a big disappointment.

plastic water bottles, single-use water bottles, trash, food wasteLast year, Concord MA banned single-use plastic water bottles and I hope other communities follow suit.

Businesses run on a profit-and-loss model. As long as using disposable plastics is cheaper than washing dishes and silverware, that’s what they will do. If they had to pay a tax for every bag of plastic trash dumped in the landfill, they might change their business model. Even better, if companies had to subsidize the cleanup of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a flotilla of plastic trash the size of Texas off the California Coast, they’d have even more incentive to reduce waste. Even Wall-E couldn’t handle this.

If you think movement to ban plastic straws makes much ado about nothing, ask yourself how you’d feel if someone pulled a straw out of your nose with a pair of pliers.

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About Aline Kaplan

Aline Kaplan is a published author, a blogger, and a tour guide in Boston. She formerly had a career as a high-tech marketing and communications director. Aline writes and edits The Next Phase Blog, a social commentary blog that appears multiple times a week at aknextphase.com. She has published over 1,000 posts on a variety of subjects, from Boston history to science fiction movies, astronomical events to art museums. Under the name Aline Boucher Kaplan, she has had two science fiction novels (Khyren and World Spirits) published by Baen Books. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies published in the United States, Ireland, and Australia. Aline’s articles have also appeared on the Atlas Obscura website. She has been an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America since 1988 and is a long-term member of the Spacecrafts science/fantasy writers’ group. As a tour guide, Aline leads architectural and historical walking tours of the city for Boston By Foot, ghost tours for Haunted Boston and historical bus tours of the city. She lectures on Boston history and has appeared in the Boston Globe, as well as on TV for Chronicle, an award-winning television program that broadcasts stories of New England. As a lecturer, Aline has spoken at Brandeis and Tufts universities for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She has also addressed as service organizations and local meetings. She is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston and lives in Hudson, MA.

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