Opinion

The plastic straw debacle

I recently read an article about the public wanting McDonald’s to ban their paper straws and bring back their plastic ones and it got me wondering whether plastic straws were really such a big problem in the world or if we should be wondering why it has become such a hot topic.

McDonald’s straws

Like many restaurants, pubs and cafes around the world McDonald’s UK were urged to save the planet by changing their single-use plastic straws to paper ones due to the impact plastic is having on our oceans.

According to CNN Business, the original plastic straws used by McDonald’s in their 1,361 outlets across the United Kingdom and Ireland, could be recycled whereas the paper straws which were introduced are too thick to be processed by the waste solution providers.

A petition was started calling for the fast food giant to remove the paper straws and social media followers claimed the paper straws became soggy or dissolved in their soft drinks and were not usable in the milkshakes.

People with disabilities suffer the most

People who are paralysed, suffer from joint weakness, quadriplegics, stroke survivors and even children with Down syndrome often need a straw to be able to drink, and while stainless steal or bamboo straws may be offered, there is no good alternative to a plastic straw which bends to a comfortable angle for some.

Which country is the biggest polluter?

Research conducted by the United States and Australia, led by an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia Jenna Jambeck, it was found that China and Indonesia were the greatest contributors of plastic debris such as bottles, bags and other plastic items.

In 2010 it was established that China produced 8.8 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste and around 3.53 million metric tons of it ended up in the ocean.

Indonesia had 3.2 million metric tons of which about 1.29 million metric tons became plastic marine debris.

The Philippines come in third with 1.9 million metric tons of which 0.75 million metric tons becomes marine debris.

Are paper straws harmful to humans?

According to Dr Shalini Joshi, a consultant for internal medicine at Fortis Hospital in Bengaluru, straws are essentially made from wood pulp which is bleached and then dyed to a desired colour or pattern.  The cellulose from the paper is chemically treated, unlike the cellulose of vegetables.

As you drink through the paper straw and it becomes soggy, small particles of cellulose are ingested.  These pieces will be eliminated by the body, unless they are coated in wax.

Some straws have wax coating to prevent them from becoming too soggy but it is not unless they are reused that they begin to break down and ingested.

The actual pollution problem

According to statistics, plastic straws only account for 0.03 percent of plastic in the ocean.  Fishing nets however make up almost half but the actual problem is cigarette butts with an estimated 4.5 trillion butts discarded around the world annually.

Research by Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge found that cigarette butts are the largest man-made contaminant.  Not only are the butts not biodegradable but un-smoked cigarettes have a negative effect on plant growth.

Around 35% of litter in coastal and urban areas since the 1980s is cigarette butts.

There have been calls to have the filters banned as their benefits are minimal and earlier this year Californian lawmaker, Hannah-Beth Jackson introduced a bill which outlaws cigarette filters.