Environmentalists have declared war on the plastic straw, and it is easy to see why. Americans use millions of straws every day, for about 20 minutes each on average, and then toss them out. Those straws break down gradually into tiny microparticles and become an unappetizing contaminant in every food chain.
This is especially true on our beaches and in our oceans, where plastic waste is accumulating so quickly that by 2050 it may, according to a study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, exceed the weight of all the fish in the seas. Studies show that up to 70 percent of seabirds have ingested plastics and the likelihood of a turtle ingesting plastic has increased significantly over the past couple of decades.
The anti-straw movement exploded in 2015 with a disturbing video made by a Texas A&M scientist of a marine biologist extracting a crusty plastic straw from the nostril of a live sea turtle. More than 30 million YouTube views later, the video has helped drive a global movement to limit or ban straws through campaigns like the Last Plastic Straw, Strawfree.org, Strawwars.org, Be Straw Free, and television actor Adrian Grenier’s campaign For a Strawless Ocean.
Now cities and companies are jumping on the bandwagon. The city of Seattle banned plastic straws and utensils. Starbucks will stop offering plastic straws by 2020. American Airlines and Alaska Airlines have eliminated them from its flights. SeaWorld will remove straws and bags from its parks, and Marriott Hotels and Royal Caribbean will eliminate them from hotels and cruise ships. Even quarterback Tom Brady announced on his Instagram page that “I’m out on single-use plastic straws.”
I’m all for avoiding plastic straws. They’re one of thousands of products we overuse or just don’t need. But can we really save the planet by banning one product at a time like this? Straws are just the tiny tip of an enormous, melting iceberg, after all.
We can do more, not just by relying on government bans, but also by harnessing the free market. Last April in Dallas, at the world’s largest Earth Day exhibition, more than 100 corporate executives, environmental activists and politicians from the right and the left gathered to find ways to save the world’s oceans, forests and climate.
Together with environmental sustainability nonprofits EarthX and Future 500, these leaders developed a six-point plan to protect the world’s oceans. Cutting plastic pollution was high on that list, but we didn’t stop there. We detailed six ways consumers and corporations could combine their buying power in order to get to the root causes of ocean destruction.
Government can help, but consumers have the real power, if we learn to use it. We can save the oceans by only supporting brands and companies that:
• Shift to clean-burning fuels on cargo and cruise ships.
• Offer only sustainable seafood, never from illegal or untraceable sources.
• Avoid minerals, oil and gas mined in ways that threaten fisheries, reefs and complex marine ecosystems.
• Buy plastic products only from providers who join a comprehensive global system to reduce, reuse and recycle plastics, and prevent marine debris from entering the ocean, especially in nations that don’t have recycling infrastructures.
v—— Buy meat and produce only from farms and ranches that strictly reduce chemical runoff — the chief cause of ocean dead zones that kill fisheries and hurt people whose livelihoods depend on them.
—— Commit to corporate and public policies that will drive down ocean acidification and coral reef death, which threaten our food supply and, ultimately, survival. (By the way, the actions that reduce acidification and coral destruction, which are not under debate, are the same that protect the climate, a problem that some still deny.)
Those six steps are all within reach. Responsible business executives, consumers and political leaders I know from both parties agree they are necessary. But they won’t happen until citizens organize across party lines and aim for systemic solutions that are bigger than just a ban on straws.
That requires we step past our polarized political system. Polls show that 70 percent of Americans, on the right and left, can find solutions on almost any issue if we just talk with one another.
Saying no to straws is a first step; it is tangible, easy and helps start a conversation. Let’s keep talking and find collaborative solutions that can stem the tide of ocean destruction.
Trammell S. Crow is a business leader and philanthropist in Dallas and founder of EarthX, the former Earth Day Texas.