The prohibition of plastic straws is a sign of goodwill, but the enemy is another.
The world is rushing to say goodbye to plastic straws, believing that it is a “heavy” villain, but the scientific evidence suggests that it is just a slight evil.
On Monday, the coffee giant Starbucks put a hard nail in the coffin of this industry accused of being the number one public enemy of the oceans. And although it is a good decision to take care of the environment, it will take much more than eliminating the world’s strawberries to make a significant change in the levels of pollution on the planet.
To start measuring the real effect of the straws in the ocean, we must go to the beginning of the phenomenon: a video published in August 2015, when marine biologist Christine Figgener, of the University of Texas, recorded an olive ridley turtle fighting desperately for removing a piece of straw 10 cm stuck in your nostrils. The video, recorded in Costa Rica, shows Christine trying to free the animal’s airways, introducing clamps that cause a hemorrhage.
In the original description of the video – which today has more than 30 million views – Christine makes an urgent appeal: “DI’NO’ TO POPOTS OF PLASTIC AND ANY TYPE OF DISPOSABLE PLASTIC OBJECT”. His call was quickly replicated by hundreds of media in the world and amplified an anti-poppy campaign that had been circulating shyly on social networks for a while.
Experts agree that this was the decisive moment for the end of plastic straws, an industry that no one knows for sure their production levels. Last year, at least 15 prestigious media outlets – such as The Washington Post and Reuters – used the figure for the use of 500 million straws every day in the United States … only to recognize days later that they did not check the source of that study: the homework of a 9-year-old child.
Last year, a pair of Australian scientists, Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox, published their scientific estimate on the actual number of plastic straws in the oceans. After five years of samples, they determined that there are between 437 million and 8.3 billion straws. The range between the minimum and the maximum is enormous and, even so, it is one of the most reliable studies on the subject.
The figure would seem outrageous, but the science portal Phys.org put that number in context: even using the 8.3 billion straws, they only account for 4 percent of the garbage in the oceans.
“The prohibition of straws can have some effect,” admits oceanographer Kara Lavender Law. “But we’re not going to solve the underlying problem by banning the use of straws.”
Adam Minter, a well-known columnist in American media and a specialist in recycling issues, is also skeptical about the real weight of the straws in the environmental crisis. According to their figures, the straws only represent 0.03 percent in the weight of the 8 million metric tons of plastic waste that is extracted every year from the oceans.
For him, and for the scientists of Ocean Cleanup, an organization dedicated to developing technology to clean the oceans, the real villain is another: fishing nets. These objects made of plastic to catch large amounts of fish represent 46 percent of the weight of plastic waste in the oceans.
In most cases, these are plastic nets left by fishermen without legal documents to extract fish. Bordered by poverty and restricted by the bans of governments, fishermen sail clandestinely offshore in search of something to take home. When they are surprised by large company ships or naval police, they usually release their prey with everything and nets to get rid of the evidence of the crime.
The solution of weight, point many specialists, is to regulate fishing in order to have more control over plastic nets. But while that happens, small changes can help something, especially to open the discussion of what happens in the oceans.
For now, the end of the straws is that action. Necessary, but symbolic.