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We All Know Plastic Straws Are Bad, But Is The 'War On Straws' Justified?

South Australia has plans to ban them. McDonald's is looking to phase them out.

Plastic straws have become the visual target of the environmental movement (when it isn't plastic bags, or coffee cups). But is it really the best use of our environmental energies?

A widely shared Bloomberg article published last year declared the plastic straw "crisis" a fashionable movement that distracted from "far more useful efforts" of curbing plastic use.

It pointed out that plastic straws littering our oceans paled in comparison to abandoned fishing nets, which is estimated to account for between 10 and 46 percent of the roughly eight million metric tons of plastic in the world's oceans.

Marine biologist Gabriele Dederer desks a crab from a ghost net secured by divers and throws it back into the Baltic Sea. Photo: Getty.

They're called ghost nets: fishing gear lost or abandoned at sea. Dr Denise Hardesty, principal research scientist with CSIRO's Oceans and Atmosphere team, said it's a "substantial problem" in areas where illegal fishing is rampant, depleting fish stocks by between five and 30 percent.

"Fishing is not immensely profitable for the small scale [legal] fishers, so they can't afford to lose their nets -- it's too costly for them," Hardesty told 10 daily.

"However, if you're fishing illegally, and you're being chased across an area where you're not meant to be, you're going to cut your net and run."

The Bloomberg article argued that environmentalist efforts to switch us all on to metal or bamboo straws were wasted, when they should be trying to crack down on ghost net.

It cited the positive example of tuna companies buckling to consumer pressure to stop netting dolphins, saying similar tactics could help establish incentives for local fisherman to bring nets to a disposal point -- something Hardesty, who has studied this for a decade, said would work.

That being said, millions of plastic straws are still being found on Australia's coastline. A widely cited statistic suggests Australians use 10 million straws per day (equating to 3.5 billion per year).

It's estimated Australians use 10 million plastic straws per day. Photo: Getty.

Clean Up Australia's Terrie-Ann Johnson told 10 daily that plastic straws were the number one 'rubbish' item picked up in 2018.

"We had over 7,500 straws reported to us, and that's just the tip of the iceberg," she said, explaining that they only receive data 10 percent of locations.

"It's significant. And the big issue around straws is that they are just so obviously short term, single use. We use them for 15 minutes, and throw them away."

We're also facing an exponentially increasing plastic problem. Over the next 11 years, we'll be making more plastic than we have since classic production began in the 1960s.

Photo: Getty.

"The amount of plastic going into the ocean is tracking cumulatively," Hardesty said.

"As much as we're cleaning up and doing beach clean ups and everything, we're not keeping up with the amount we're creating."

The thing is -- we all know plastic straws are bad. Paper straws are emerging as the alternative du jour, but although they're far less environmentally damaging, they aren't a perfect solution.

READ MORE: I Know That Climate Change Is Real -- And I'm Not Doing Anything To Stop It

When McDonald's moved to using paper straws in Europe, it found they were unable to be recycled. (It's working on a "sustainable solution".)

And disability activates have rightly pointed out again and again that plastic straws can be pretty vital to people with disabilities, where paper, bamboo or metal straws simply won't work.

Source: Sarah Breanne P.

So what are the solutions? Both Johnson and Hardesty cited incentives to fixing the issue, pointing to everything from South Australia's rebate for handing in plastic bottles, to farmers in Indonesia asking for recycling points where they can turn in broken nets.

Hardesty also pointed to enforcement of no plastic policies. Kenya, for example, might have the world's strictest enforcement of a plastic bag ban, with fines of US $40,000 for bring one into the country, but it's working.

"It's remarkable," Hardesty said. "You do not find pieces of plastic."

Johnson, meanwhile, is "very determined" to disrupt plastic use at every level: from the consumer bring a keep cup, to the manufacture using recyclable packaging, to the very products on offer.

And she's hopeful -- incredibly so.

"I'm a lot more encouraged than I have been in a while," she said.

"There's a groundswell of interest and awareness, and a real desire to change things. We can actually fix this."

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au