Straws suck! The message is now loud and clear – the plastic straw has a limited future. Politicians are beginning to embrace the message that environmentalists and scientists have been preaching for the past few years: straws, because they are small, lightweight and easily escape litter cleanups, are contributing disproportionately to the tsunami of plastic now engulfing the planet. Litterati, which monitors garbage, says plastic straws are the sixth most common type of litter, while advocacy group Ocean Conservancy puts them among the top 10 marine debris items. Australian researchers Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox estimate that US beaches alone are littered with around 7.5 million plastic straws. Worldwide, the total could range anywhere from 437 million to 8.3 million. Because they are so small, they are almost never recycled and contribute to the estimated eight million tons of plastic being dumped into the oceans each year. Also targeted by activists are other single-use items such as coffee stirrers, cotton swabs, water bottles and bottle caps, and of course plastic bags. Indian Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan boldly declared in a message to an international forum in New Delhi on June 5 – the UN World Environment Day – that “on a personal front” he would give up single-use plastic in his daily life. Vardhan went further: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, he announced, has pledged to ban all single-use plastics by 2022 – within just four years!
A bold statement indeed, which was hailed by the UN as “unprecedented”.British Prime Minister Theresa May has been less optimistic – pledging only that UK would eliminate avoidable plastic waste – where it is “economically practical” to do so – by 2042! Essentially, May is kicking the can down the road for the next generation to confront. But India, in fact, is well-placed to revert to more traditional non-plastic alternatives – it was not that long ago that earthenware pots and small palm-leaf bowls were replaced at “modern” dhabas by plastic plates and bowls. It will not be that difficult to go back to those more environmentally-friendly ways. But for Britain and other major western countries, plastic has become such an integral part of daily living that it will, as May predicts, take decades to reverse the trend. Perhaps the dire warnings of environmentalists and natural scientists, and now more and more the policy decisions by governments, will hasten the process. Activists aim to make the use of plastic straws and single-use plastic items as socially unacceptable as smoking in confined spaces has now become. They say there are alternatives – paper straws, bamboo straws and even straws made from pasta. Or, they say, go back to the method we all used before the arrival of the straw – simply sipping our drinks from a glass. Global environmental movement “For a Strawless Ocean” has a simple message: stop sucking! The #stopsucking campaign was launched by non-profit group Lonely Whale, and is spearheaded by actor Adrian Grenier, who has produced a video which shows a giant octopus tentacle slapping the faces of famous people, including physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and model Brooklyn Decker, as they suck their drinks through straws. Grenier says that plastic straws may appear to be a minor problem, but they can help tackle the much greater problem of plastic pollution. "A straw may be small, but it's the DNA of carelessness and it just might be a gateway into solving the much larger issue of plastic pollution,” Grenier says. They connect all of us, no matter where we live or how much money we make, and they're an opportunity to start a conversation. In other words, consumers will become more aware of the dangers that plastic is posing to the environment if they are deprived of straws. It doesn’t take much to launch a campaign against straws. “For a Strawless Ocean” offers a toolkit that individuals can download to start crusades in their own neighbourhoods. “Be Straw Free” was launched in 2011 by nine-year-old Milo Cress, who started asking restaurants in his hometown, Burlington, Vermont, to stop providing straws automatically to customers and make them optional instead. The trend is now spreading across the US. In New Delhi, 13-year-old Aditya Mukarji, working as a volunteer for environmental NGO Chintan, is credited with phasing out nearly five lakh straws from restaurants and eateries across the National Capital Region in a month. As campaigns such as this one and hundreds of others spread, India may well find itself leading the way in limiting the use of single-use plastics. If such a large population of people can be persuaded to abandon wasteful polluting plastic ways, there is hope that the rest of the world will eventually follow. Perhaps one day we can indeed declare: “That was the last straw.”