Every day, Americans throw away 500 million plastic straws, enough to circle the Earth twice, or fill 125 school buses.
That means the average American uses over 35,000 of them in a lifetime. But that could even be a low estimate, according to Adrian Grenier, who leads a campaign called Strawless Ocean.
"Conservatively, you can guess that Americans will use on average two plastic straws a day, so 500 million is an accurate estimate. But I challenge you to start paying attention to the straws you get in your iced coffee, smoothies, soda, and cocktails. When I'm in New York or LA the number of plastic straws I receive is often closer to 10 a day."
Worldwide, plastic straws are the sixth most common type of litter, according to Litterati, an app that identifies and maps trash, and among the top 10 marine debris items according to environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservacy.
Made from fossil fuels, they are almost never recycled because they're too small and could be made from several different types of plastic. They simply contribute to the massive problem of plastic pollution; eight million tons of plastic is dumped into the oceans every year.
Make it an option
Plastic straws are now the target of a growing movement to reduce their use. Possibly the first of such campaigns, Be Straw Free was started in 2011 by Milo Cress, who was only nine years old at the time. "I noticed that whenever I ordered a drink at a restaurant, it would usually come with a straw in it, and I don't usually need a straw," he said.
"This seemed like a huge waste. Straws are made of oil, a precious and finite resource. Is making single-use plastic straws, which will be used for a matter of minutes before being tossed away, really what we want to do with this resource?"
Cress started asking restaurants in Burlington, Vermont, where he lived at the time, to stop providing straws automatically to customers and make them optional instead. Many agreed and his request made ripples nationwide. He says that restaurants that make the switch report a reduction in the number of straws they use between 50 and 80%.
In 2015, a shocking viral YouTube video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw lodged into its nostril gave the movement a boost.
Plastic straws may seem like a minor problem, but they can help tackle bigger problems, according to Grenier. "A straw may be small, but it's the DNA of carelessness and it just might be a gateway into solving the much larger issue of plastic pollution. They connect all of us, no matter where we live or how much money we make, and they're an opportunity to start a conversation."
Grenier has launched a campaign called #stopsucking, with a video featuring a giant octopus tentacle slapping straws away from the faces of famous people, including physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and model Brooklyn Decker.
The lighthearted approach is a deliberate strategy. "Environmental destruction is such a disheartening topic and facing these realities can breed apathy which doesn't actually produce change," he said. "That's why we are committed to creating a movement grounded in positivity and levity. It's working. Just take our Strawless In Seattle campaign as proof."
That campaign helped Seattle save 2.3 million plastic straws in about three months by helping businesses and restaurants switch to a paper straw that biodegrades. Later this year, the city will impose an official ban on straws and plastic utensils.
The anti-straw sentiment has crossed borders into the UK, where straws have been included in a government plan to ban all plastic waste by 2042. Last year, large pub chain Wetherspoons announced that it would replace plastic straws with paper alternatives across 900 outlets. After the announcement, many smaller chains and pubs across the country followed suit. According to Wetherspoons CEO John Hutson, the move will save 70 million plastic straws a year and the reaction from patrons has been "very positive."
Offering alternatives or making plastic straws optional, rather than banning them outright, is a common trait among these campaigns. "We do not want to make people feel bad for needing or even wanting to use a straw in their drink," said Jackie Nunez, founder of The Last Plastic Straw.
"There are many other viable alternatives to single-use plastic drinking straws that are less harmful to the environment, wildlife and humans," she said.
Some people use straws to reduce the damage of sugary or acidic drinks to their teeth, or due to special requirements. "There are disabled people who write me to tell me they carry reusable straws with them -- many reusable straws even come with a carrying case," said Cress. "There are reusable glass, stainless steel, copper, bamboo, and several other kinds of reusable straws."
By not demonizing the straw as an object, he thinks activists can hope to achieve better goals.c "I am not out to ban straws. I think it's much more effective to encourage people to make the choice not to use them. Voluntary participation encourages people to spread the word. Forcing people to do things is not always the most effective way to make a change."