Plastic straws — their beginnings and the upcoming ban
By mid-2023, a ban on plastic straws in restaurants and other food service businesses will be in place. The problems caused by petroleum-based conventional plastics are evident—high energy and resource consumption, environmental pollution and climate change acceleration. That coupled with the fact microplastics are now, literally, everywhere, from beach coastlines to the human bloodstream. Read on for a brief history of how plastic straws took over the world—including our oceans.
How do plastic straws affect the environment?
Plastic straws feature in the top 10 most commonly collected items in global coastal cleanups, according to the Annual International Coastal Cleanup Reports 1988-2017. Straws feature ninth in coastal cleanups in Aotearoa. Sustainable Coastlines, founded in 2009 after a clean-up of Aotea / Great Barrier Island, finds that single-use plastics, including straws, comprise more than three-quarters of the 1.3 million litres of rubbish they've removed from beaches across Aotearoa. Today, they’ll collect beyond 23,200 plastic straws annually from Auckland beaches alone.
Australian scientists Wilcox C, Van Sebille E, and Hardesty BD estimated in their research paper; Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing that as many as 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute beaches worldwide. National Geographic reveals that where 8 million tonnes of plastics flow into the ocean every year, plastic straws comprise roughly 0.025% of that total. And while these findings might indicate that banning plastic straws could not make a significant improvement to the environment, campaigning for cleaner oceans requires us to look at not just straws, but single-use plastics generally. How did straws become modern and prevalent?
All plastic straws begin with oil
John Wesley Hyatt invented celluloid, the first synthetic polymer in 1869, and then Bakelite, developed by Leo Baekeland arrived in 1907. In the 1940s, plastic revolutionised blood collection—with plasticised polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a polymer made flexible by the addition of DEHP, replacing glass and rubber. And by the 1960s, strategic marketing and creative promotion were paying off—as noted by Modern Plastics! "the public are gradually being educated to look upon plastics as a material that is highly desirable.
And while PVC provided lifesaving medical advances, there were health concerns. In 1974, at the B.F. Goodrich Company’s PVC plant, four workers died of the same rare liver cancer. An investigation implicated exposure to chlorine gas which gives PVC strength and flexibility, was likely. In 1969 Johns Hopkins University toxicologists confirmed DEHP was leaching from plastic and into human tissues. And in 1972 Washington Post article reported that phthalates like DEHP had been found in blood samples from people who had been exposed only through everyday contact with plastic, noting that “humans are just a little plastic now.” PVC single-use containers were only banned this October.
“Humans are just a little plastic now”.
The plastics industry criticised such research, including reports that connect plastics with endocrine disruption arguing that no study conclusively proved plastics unsafe. However, as early as the 1980s, the EPA demonstrated that styrene—the molecular building block of all polystyrene— plastic made from petrochemicals was present in 100% of the human fat samples collected across the continental United States. Used notable for cups, clamshell food containers, and trays, styrene is considered a possible human carcinogen by the World Health Organisation.
And plastic straws, made predominantly from polypropylene, a type of plastic that, 99% of the time, is derived from petroleum, can leach depending on the conditions, releasing compounds that could affect estrogen levels. Polypropylene is thought to be food-safe in amounts approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Still, most of these chemicals aren’t regulated, and more recently, emerging concerns regarding human health problems have been connected to the toxic chemicals released by microplastics. These chemicals are absorbed from the environment or additives used in the plastic production process. Microplastics have been detected in human blood and lung.
Around 252,000 tons of plastic is landfilled every year
Research published assessing the production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made estimates that 8,300 million metric tons of virgin plastics have been produced to date. And that as of 2015, approximately 6,300 metric tons of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 metric tons of plastic waste will be landfilled or in the natural environment by 2050. Domestically, plastics account for around 8% of Aotearoa’s waste by weight. However, given plastic is light, it’s thought that this could equate to 20% of landfill.
As an Island nation, we live and work by the sea. It’s such a huge part of our lives. So we should all be campaigning for cleaner oceans, and fewer landfills. Yet, the reality is that, according to Christchurch's EcoSort, which recycles solid materials on behalf of the Christchurch City Council, plastic straws are regarded as contaminants and end up in landfill. Anything smaller than a yoghurt pottle drops out of the sorter—which is sorting through 25 tonnes of material an hour, so along with bottle caps and other small plastic items, it all becomes residual waste and is moved to a landfill.
More bans on plastics coming in 2023. Including straws
Plastic pollution accumulating in an area of the environment is considered “poorly reversible”, and so if a ban removes potentially millions of single-use plastic straws from our ecosystems, then that is a logical response. Plastic doesn’t really biodegrade. Plastic landfilled will take over 400 years to degrade, and even then, plastics only disintegrate into microplastics. Policies focused on reducing plastic consumption will imply that we are changing the premises upon which we build our relationship with materials and their sources.
The following single-use plastics will be phased out by 2025.
For more information regarding the single-use plastics to be phased out by mid-2023 (tranche 2), visit the Ministry for the Environment.
Potential impacts from poorly reversible plastic pollution include changes to carbon and nutrient cycles; habitat changes within soils, sediments, and aquatic ecosystems; co-occurring biological impacts on endangered or keystone species; ecotoxicity; and related societal impacts. The logical response to the global threat posed by accumulating and poorly reversible plastic pollution is to rapidly reduce plastic emissions through reductions in the consumption of virgin plastic materials, along with internationally coordinated strategies for waste management. The phase-out applies also to compostable bioplastics, you can view more information on the available alternatives below.
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