The mid-April flood deposited plenty of debris on Kauai’s beaches. There have already been concentrated, communitywide efforts to clean up the mess, progress has been made, and work will continue in places like Lydgate Park, where driftwood and other waste fills the ponds and lines the shorelines. More than 50 people were at Pine Trees clearing the debris that has accumulated in recent weeks.
But, what we also know, there was long plenty of trash in the ocean before this happened. Surfrider, which organizes beach cleanups, will testify that plastic is the leading source of waste because it lasts pretty much forever and floats. So much is made of plastic, contains plastic, that the amount of plastic is overwhelming.
One recent report spelled it out for us and the results are a bit staggering, though perhaps not surprising.
Australian scientists Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox estimate, using trash collected on U.S. coastlines during cleanups over five years, that there are nearly 7.5 million plastic straws lying around America’s shorelines, according to the Associated Press. They figure that means 437 million to 8.3 billion plastic straws are on the entire world’s coastlines.
Sounds like a lot, right? It is, but not compared to this: University of Georgia environmental engineering professor Jenna Jambeck calculates that nearly 9 million tons end up in the world’s oceans and coastlines each year, as of 2010, according to her 2015 study in the journal Science.
That’s just in and near oceans. Each year more than 35 million tons of plastic pollution are produced around Earth and about a quarter of that ends up around the water, the AP reported.
Just go for a walk along the Ke Ala Hele Makalae and look to the shoreline. You’ll likely see untold types of plastic trash. While volunteers do their best to retrieve it, they can’t be everywhere at once. That’s where people can make a difference, one piece of plastic at a time.
“For every pound of tuna we’re taking out of the ocean, we’re putting two pounds of plastic in the ocean,” says ocean scientist Sherry Lippiatt, California regional coordinator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program.
Sadly, marine life pays the price for man’s carelessness.
Seabirds and fish ingest it. Green sea turtles get caught up in it. It’s deadly to them.
Following in the footsteps of several U.S. cities such as Seattle and Miami Beach, British Prime Minister Theresa May in April called on the nations of the British commonwealth to consider banning plastic straws, coffee stirrers and plastic swabs with cotton on the end.
McDonald’s will test paper straws in some U.K. locations next month and keep all straws behind the counter, so customers have to ask for them.
The issue of straws and marine animals got more heated after a 2015 viral video showing rescuers removing a straw from a sea turtle’s nose in graphic and bloody detail.
But a ban may be a bit of a straw man in the discussions about plastics pollution. Straws make up about 4 percent of the plastic trash by piece, but far less by weight.
Straws on average weigh so little — about one sixty-seventh of an ounce or .42 grams — that all those billions of straws add up to only about 2,000 tons of the nearly 9 million tons of plastic waste that yearly hits the waters.
According to the AP report, scientists say that unless you are disabled or a small child, plastic straws are generally unnecessary and a ban is start and good symbol.
The problem is, like much of the plastic waste, you use these items for a few minutes and they basically stick around in the environment forever. Much like those Styrofoam cups we use for coffee, plastic straws are built to last.
Marcus Eriksen, an environmental scientist who co-founded the advocacy group 5 Gyres, says working on bans of straws and plastic bags would bring noticeable change. He calls plastic bags, cups and straws that break down in smaller but still harmful pieces the “smog of microplastics.”
“Our cities are horizontal smokestacks pumping out this smog into the seas,” Eriksen says. “One goal for advocacy organizations is to make that single-use culture taboo, the same way smoking in public is taboo.”
Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council, said people can reduce waste by not taking straws, but “in many cases these plastics provide sanitary conditions for food, beverages and personal care.”
We can decrease the amount of plastics in the ocean without bans. It can be done by making smarter, more responsible personal decisions each and every day. We have a long way to go, but raising awareness and asking people to do their part is a first step. It only seems hopeless when we choose not to pick up that one piece of plastic.