Plastics have long been hailed as a miracle of modern invention. They are lightweight, durable and affordable, making them very popular in manufacturing. These attributes, however, are also part of the problem when it comes to plastics. When simply tossed into the trash these plastics can have an immense lifespan and become hard to collect because of their physical properties.
No place is a better example of the hazards posed by plastics than the area in the Pacific Ocean known as the Great Pacific garbage patch. Located roughly halfway between California and Hawaii, the self-constructed island of discarded plastic and other debris covers an area reported be as large as 1.6 million square kilometers. This is thought to have been created gradually over time as the ocean’s currents pulled marine pollution from the coasts of Japan and the United States and collected it as a relatively stationary mass.
The mass does not pose a risk of pollution only in its place, as small material and smooth pellets from the area have been regularly washing up on the region’s beaches. This creates a severe threat to local sea life with toxins from the trash finding its way into the diet of not just beach life but connected waterways. Additionally the plastic makes the beach harmful to human beach goers, too, as well as just making for an unattractive locale.
People have devoted themselves to solving this problem by cleaning beaches while others undertake plans to remove the material from the ocean. This is difficult because of the transient nature of the plastic from the patch and its fine nature, degraded from the sunlight, sea salt and ocean motion. Numerous cleanup projects have been proposed since 2009 but no one solution has been used to any great effect as yet.
Of course, the best way of combating this pollution headache is to reduce the amount of plastic we use. It has been said, for instance, that Americans use over 500 million plastic straws each day. To illustrate just how much waste this creates, this amount of plastic could fill over 127 school buses daily. This would fill 46,400 school buses each year—and that is simply from plastic drinking straws! Reducing or eliminating this amount could make a huge difference because drinking straws are one of the most common items collected from beaches.
To that end, several manufacturers of drinking straws are offering alternatives. One such method is to return to using paper straws. The paper, breaking down into easily biodegradable debris, would solve one of the problems posed by their plastic relatives. Another idea is to create reusable straws from metal, taking advantage of the added durability as well as the ability to be conveniently washed for reuse, like silverware, possessing a nearly endless lifespan.
One such innovator is Sunshine Straw Company, founded with the intention of eliminating single use plastic such as the straws found at fast food restaurants. Their basic package includes three different sizes of metal straws, providing another advantage over the typical straws being used in restaurants. These can be reused and easily carried for use in restaurants and cafes in place of plastic straws.
Numerous locations, especially beach front communities like Saint Petersburg, Florida, have taken the initiative to ban plastic straws and are working together with local companies like Sunshine Straw Company and larger agencies like Oceana and The Ocean Conservancy to provide sound alternatives. These areas have seen the harmful effects already and are motivated to reduce their environmental impact as a start of a larger effort to reduce and totally replace common plastics which end up in our water supplies.