Big brands like Starbucks are joining the effort to eliminate plastic straws, and although it may seem like this hot button issue appeared overnight, many have been advocating for the environmental cause for years.
Entourage star Adrian Grenier has been vocal about forgoing plastic straws since 2015, when he co-founded a nonprofit called Lonely Whale that calls for stores to “#StopSucking” with plastic straws. The campaign enlisted many celebrities to fight for a strawless ocean, including Russell Wilson, Amanda Seyfried, Ellen Pompeo and Chelsea Clinton, among others.
Starbucks announced plans to switch to strawless lids at stores worldwide by 2020, citing environmental consciousness and ocean conservancy in their efforts. Other food service companies across America have also reduced their plastic straw count, including McDonald’s who announced plans to ban straws in the U.K. and test alternative materials in select U.S. stores. Seattle even banned straws altogether and the city imposed a $250 fine on any establishment who doesn’t follow the rules.
But how much of an environmental impact could these efforts actually have? “While eliminating single-use plastic straws will by no means remedy the plastic pollution crisis, by our estimates, Starbucks’ commitment alone will keep more than 2.5 billion single-use plastic straws out of their coffee shops, and out of our world’s ocean,” a spokesperson from Lonely Whale tells PEOPLE in a statement. “We hope that industry peers will join Starbucks, as well as McDonald’s prior announcement, with even more bold commitments to save our seas.”
Although there is no clear data on exactly how many plastic straws Americans use each day—500 million is a commonly used statistic, but has since been debunked—straws are among the most common type of plastic waste found in the ocean. According to a study by the World Economic Forum, at the current rate, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by the year 2050.
Julie Andersen, Global Executive Director for the non-profit organization Plastic Oceans, says there is a common misconception that straws are recyclable, but because of their low structural integrity, they cannot be re-used the same way other plastics can be. Therefore, straws and other single-use plastics, which they classify as “anything you use for an average of ten-minutes” such as water bottles, plastic cups and plastic bags, make up 50 percent of plastic waste, and often end up in the ocean, where they break down into micro-plastic and harm the ecosystem.
“This belief that we can all use plastic and you can throw it away and it’s going to disappear and it’s going to dissolve or degrade—that is a false belief,” Andersen tells PEOPLE.
According to Andersen, once plastic enters the ocean, it can choke sea creatures such as whales, seals and sea turtles who mistake it for food. After it breaks down into micro-plastic, the chemicals leak into the water and act as magnets to other toxins because it is oil based, which disrupts the food chain with unnatural and unhealthy substances. When fish feed on those toxins, it ends up in their fatty tissue, which is the part of the animal that humans consume, she says.
“The fish, the kelp, they maintain their own ecosystem and their balance underneath the sea so that we maintain a healthy ocean,” says Andersen. “If you start disrupting that balance by adding in more plastic that is harming all the creatures and all the life under the sea, the potential damage is extremely high.”
With all the plastic products out there, it may be puzzling why the focus is on straws specifically. “Straws are an easy place to start because it doesn’t impact the product you want,” Andersen says. “So if you go out and you get a drink, in theory you could just drink it out of the cup. The straw itself is just an accessory. Whereas it is tougher for people to get rid of the plastic bags in the grocery stores like produce bags, because unless you bring your own bag, how do you take all of your mushrooms or your little items? All of the sudden it compromises the actual product you want to take.”
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Although organizations such as Plastic Oceans and Lonely Whale have been fighting to eliminate single-use plastic for years, adding big brands such as Starbucks and McDonald’s to the strawless movement has given it momentum—but Andersen says it doesn’t end the problem. For example, even though eliminating plastic straws from Starbucks could remove billions of straws per year, she points out that the strawless lids they replaced them with are still considered a single-use plastic, and though they tout them as being more recyclable, that means they have a higher structural integrity and use more plastic to create. While Andersen understands this is a commendable effort, one goal of Plastic Oceans is to ensure these companies enforce recycling internally.
“We recognize positive changes and this is one change but we’re here to continue to push—to not lose that momentum,” Andersen said. “Not say, ‘oh we’ve solved the problem’ and let that rock roll back down the hill. It is commendable but it’s important for people to recognize that this is just one small step.”