Less than two weeks after a pilot whale died off Thailand with 80 plastic bags in its stomach, three major companies — SeaWorld, Ikea and Royal Caribbean — have vowed to remove plastic straws and bags from their properties.
The companies are now linked to a host of businesses, governments and others across the world that have joined an effort to dramatically reduce the 8 million metric tons of plastic that pollute oceans each year — “one garbage truck into the ocean every minute,” according to a 2016 report released by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The corporate activism is evidence that a fledgling movement to ban plastic straws, which sprang from outrage over plastic’s impact on the environment and animals, continues to stir.
Movement organizers have recruited Girl Scouts, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, on World Environment Day last Tuesday, announced his nation’s effort to eliminate single-use plastic by 2022. “Let us all join together to beat plastic pollution and make this planet a better place to live,” Modi urged.
His call to action apparently was not ignored. SeaWorld Entertainment announced Thursday that its 12 theme parks had removed “all single-use plastic drinking straws and single-use plastic shopping bags.” In a statement, interim chief executive John Reilly called the move “a testament to our mission to protect the environment, the ocean and animals … which are currently threatened by unprecedented amounts of plastic pollution.”
The same day, Royal Caribbean Cruises said its fleet of 50 ships “will ring in 2019 free of plastic straws.” That includes luxury liners under all of its brands, including Celebrity Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises and Royal Caribbean International. “For over a year now, RCL ships have begun implementing a straws upon request policy,” a statement said. “That program will be taken a step further by the start of 2019, when guests requesting a straw will receive a paper straw instead of a plastic one.” Guests will get wood stirrers for coffee and bamboo garnish picks as part of the drive to reduce trash.
By 2020, Ikea said, its stores will no longer hand out plastic bags or straws as part of an effort to become “people and planet positive” within 10 years. Lena Pripp-Kovac, the furniture giant’s sustainability manager, said that moving forward, Ikea “will design all products from the very beginning to be repurposed, repaired, reused, resold and recycled.” Ikea plans to take the effort a step further by introducing low-cost home solar products and even offering vegetarian food selections at its in-store cafeterias.
On July 1, Seattle will become the largest U.S. city to cut out all plastic straws and eating utensils in restaurants, while the California General Assembly is weighing legislation to ban straws and plastic bags statewide. Across the Atlantic, British Prime Minister Theresa May has announced her government will introduce a ban on the sale of plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton swabs throughout the United Kingdom. The European Commission also has proposed rules banning 10 single-use plastic products throughout the European Union. (Its caveat: Alternatives would need to be “readily available and affordable.”)
In Europe, where the push for environmental sustainability and conservation is stronger than in the United States, Starbucks agreed recently to phase out all plastic straws and cutlery. But the Seattle-based company is resisting pressure to do the same at home after a celebrity shareholder, Adrian Grenier, drafted a resolution demanding it start removing plastic and using paper. Starbucks has offered a $10 million grant to any group or individual with a workable idea for an environmentally friendly cup.
McDonald’s shareholders voted overwhelmingly last month against a proposal to undertake a report on the risks associated with the restaurant’s continued use of plastic straws. The company’s board convinced voters that the proposal was redundant, considering an ongoing conservation initiative. In a statement, McDonald’s said it is offering straws that can be composted at some locations “while we work with packaging experts to develop a planet-friendly, cost-effective answer for all McDonald’s restaurants.”
The global Plastic Pollution Coalition estimated last year that 1,800 “restaurants, organizations, institutions and schools worldwide have gotten rid of plastic straws or implemented a serve-straws-upon-request policy,” said Jackie Nunez, founder of a group called the Last Plastic Straw.
In addition to the pilot whale that died June 1 after swallowing the dozens of plastic bags — which weighed 17 pounds at autopsy — a sperm whale that had ingested an estimated 65 pounds of trash was found dead in April on a Spanish beach.
The anti-straw campaign exploded after a YouTube video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose went viral in 2015. The video, which featured a cringe-inducing effort to pull the plastic out of a bloody nostril, has been viewed more than 26 million times.
Plastic production has surged from 15 million tons in 1964 to more than 310 million in 2014 and is expected to double over the next 20 years, according to that 2016 report. Like straws, plastic bags are easily swept upward by winds and deposited in drains that lead to open water.
“Humans didn’t really evolve around straws. It’s not like we have to consume fluids with this appendage. What, really, what is this?” asked Catherine Greener, vice president of sustainability for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a concessions company that partners with the National Park Service to provide food and lodging at the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain and other national parks. It offers straws but asks patrons not to use them.
Paper straws were invented more than a century ago by Marvin Stone, a Washington man who did not like how the traditional ryegrass straw people used for drinking would disintegrate and leave gritty residue in his mint juleps. He wrapped strips of paper around a pencil, glued the strips together and test-marketed the contraption, and in 1888, the disposable straw was born, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.
The new paper straw was limited mostly to hospitals, which used it to avoid spreading disease. Usage widened in the early 1900s as a polio epidemic prompted people to avoid putting their mouths on others’ drinking glasses. In the 1960s, restaurants began offering a disposable plastic straw.
It is a convenience people use arbitrarily. Millions drink soda from a glass with a straw — but not beer. Hot-coffee drinkers gulp directly from cups but stick straws in iced coffee. Bar hoppers drink highballs from a glass, but mixed cocktails come with a straw.
Conservationists are now offering options such as bamboo, stainless steel and other straws.
The trouble with plastic, studies say, is it seldom goes away. Of the billions of tons produced since 1950, the vast majority is still sitting in landfills, recycling facilities and the ocean, a study last year concluded. A tiny percentage was burned in incinerators, which also produced pollution.
By midcentury, according to a 2016 study by the World Economic Forum, the amount of plastic in the ocean will outweigh the amount of fish. Plastic abounds on the high seas because about a third of what humans produce escapes collection, about “five bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world.”
Researchers at Cornell University, the University of Washington, the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and other institutions reported last year that they had found plastic on a third of the coral reefs they surveyed in the Asian Pacific. Reefs near Indonesia had the highest concentration of plastic trash and Australian reefs the lowest. It appeared to be no coincidence Australia has a superior waste-removal system.
Drew Harvell, a professor of marine ecology at Cornell and one of those researchers, called plastic “a triple whammy for coral.”
“It cuts open the skin of the coral,” she explained, “and then it can convey pathogenic microorganisms, and finally it can shade the light coral needs and cut off water flow.”