The following is a blog post by Garrett Johnson, stewardship specialist for conservation partnerships and programs at Shedd Aquarium.
“Only within the moment of time . . . has one species — man — acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.” Rachel Carson’s poignant words spurred the environmental movement of the 1960’s. When her book, Silent Spring, was published she was studying the effects of chemical pesticides on environmental and human health. In 2017, her words can be applied to a more modern environmental menace: plastic pollution.
Plastic production has skyrocketed since it’s popularization as a consumer material in the 1950’s. A 2015 Worldwatch Institute report noted that the relatively modest launching point of 1.7 million tons of plastic generated in 1950 has ballooned into 300 million tons in 2015. This already incredible figure is projected to rise to 600 million tons within the next 20 years.
Marketing campaigns over the last half century have been wildly successful in branding disposable, single-use plastics as a necessity for a modern member of society on-the-go. In 2012, nearly 70% of all plastic used in the United States was for packaging and consumer products. Disposable plastic straws are a small piece of the proverbial pie that is plastic pollution, but they provide a clear illustration of some of the fundamental issues with single-use plastics. Massive amounts of plastic straws are thrown away each day, but they fly under the public’s radar to the point that most people aren’t even aware they are a problem.
Americans use an estimated 500 million straws per day! This amount of single-use plastic material thrown away every day weighs roughly 3 million pounds. That’s the same weight as 1,000 compact-sized cars. Straws, like many plastics, are made from petroleum byproducts; in this case polypropylene. The polypropylene is mixed with colorants, plasticizers, and other additives that contribute desired properties to the end product. Plastics in general do not biodegrade, meaning the vast majority of straws still exist on the planet today. Many of them have broken down into smaller pieces by now, but this unfortunately contributes to the problem rather than provide a solution.
The effect straws have on wildlife, human health, and the environment is magnified once the plastic has broken down into smaller pieces. Plastics, no matter how small, often contain chemicals that can enter the food web when ingested by animals. These chemicals have far-reaching and frequently unforeseen impacts on animal health and biology. For example, a recent study proved that consumption of microplastics negatively impacts reproduction in oysters. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to discover that plastics and their associated chemicals are also having effects on human populations. Rigorous studies (1)(2) from the Center for Disease Control have found that chemicals often used in plastic production are prevalent in blood samples taken across the general population. While the effects of these chemicals on human health are not fully understood, lab tests on other species show diverse negative impacts on neurodevelopment, fertility, fetal development, thyroid function, and cancer.
Through the aquarium’s Great Lakes Action Days (GLAD) program, Shedd recruits volunteers to help pick up debris from local beaches to prevent it from entering the Great Lakes ecosystems. The majority of the debris we find is plastic. In 2016, 4,224 pounds of debris was picked up through the 94 GLAD events. A single cleanup of a relatively well-maintained public beach yielded 414 straws and stirrers in two hours. This beach gets cleaned once every two weeks on average during the summer months and is fairly representative of other sites where we perform litter cleanups. The amount of plastic straws left behind or washed ashore at this single beach demonstrates how many could be ending up in Lake Michigan or other nearby bodies of water. I’ve also personally witnessed gulls consuming straw fragments and cigarette filters as well as found the bodies of birds and fish with plastic in their stomachs on the beach.
It may not seem like a straw in your soda or iced-coffee is a lot, but it adds up quickly. The 1 billion pounds of plastic straws discarded in America every year is largely avoidable. You can be part of the solution by saying “no thanks” when offered a plastic straw. For those that need one or prefer to use one, we encourage using a reusable straw made from glass or metal. For more information about what you can do protect our planet this Earth Day, visit www.sheddaquarium.org/earthday.