By 2050 There Will Be More Plastic In Our Oceans Than Fish
Your plastic straw's life doesn't end when you toss it in the bin.
Every year the world produces millions of tons of plastic, much of which is resistant to degradation. As a result, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
It’s a sobering statistic, especially considering the plastic litter finding its way into our rivers and seas is man-made, discarded and wholly non-recyclable. The damage is done by the straws we use in our juices and sodas and the ones we get from take-away stores and restaurants. These quick convenience items are used once and thrown away; but they go on to live a second life in ocean gyres where they threaten our iconic biodiversity, litter coastlines and kill off fishes, turtles and other marine species like whales, sharks and dolphins.
While a ban on single-use plastic bags is right around the corner in Australia, with supermarket giants Woolworths and Coles implementing their bans on June 20 and July 1 respectively, plastic straws are still a common use for restaurants, markets and cafes. To date, no review for their ban has been actioned. In fact, in April, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull deferred the issue to state governments, claiming a ban on plastic straws could impose additional costs and create more pollution. Despite pledges from other countries to ban the use of straws, including the United Kingdom, Australia has yet to commit to a no-straw zone, leaving a dark cloud over our response to plastic as an environmental issue.
It’s no secret that single-use plastics have a major impact. Estimates measure straw use at up to 500 million units every single day. Besides their short life span, single-use plastics never fully biodegrade and take hundreds of years to start breaking down. According to the UN Environment, plastic straws are among the ‘top ten’ items found littered along the world’s coastlines. They're manufactured with petroleum that emits carbon emissions and when discarded to a landfill, plastics form a carbon sink. Other plastics emit methane emissions, absorbing the sun’s heat and warming the atmosphere. The crude oil used to produce plastic requires mass amounts of energy and is the primary pollutant recovered in oil spills. Sadly, the BPA used to make plastic straws can never be recycled.
Tragically, marine plastic pollution is a serious danger to our bounty of marine and coastal wildlife: animals dwelling in water habitats consume marine litter in lieu of their natural prey, where the rubbish becomes lodged in the digestive tract and blocks the passage of food. Like starvation, strangulation by plastic pieces is not uncommon among marine species like turtles and sea birds who become tangled and stuck in plastic bags, straws and bottles. In 2017, Nature reported that a shocking 40 percent of recovered ocean species contained some form of ingested or entangled plastic.
The full effect of plastic is not yet understood, but scientists agree that while plastic litter is a top environmental concern for wildlife, it’s damaging for human health too. Biomagnification (where plastic enters the food chain) is an emerging food concern, where smaller pieces of marine litter from plastics and straws are consumed by filter feeders like zooplankton, who are consumed by larger fish, and then caught and consumed by humans.
Despite a public plea from British PM Theresa May for Australia to ditch single-use plastic straws, in April, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull held his ground, rejecting help from other countries and environmental organisations to reduce Australia’s straw uptake. His shifting of blame to state governments leaves everyday Australians in charge of their own plastic straw reduction, leaving marine wildlife along Australia’s coast dependent on social action in the absence of government help.
Luckily, in the interim, and until the Federal Government makes use of the National Waste Policy framework to drive a solution to straw pollution, there are simple ways to remove and reduce straws uptake your daily routine, including the use of alternative straws made from bamboo, metal and paper.
Until then, Australia remains left behind in the global fight against an environmental menace in the form of plastic straw pollution.