Last year was the year Twitter banded together to ditch plastic straws. Viral tweets declaring “save the turtles!” received hundreds of thousands of retweets from people across the political spectrum. While banning plastic straws may seem like a great way to help the planet, plastic straws aren’t the problem.
Plastic straws contribute to only 0.025 percent of the eight million tons of plastic that flow into the ocean annually. Even if everyone stopped using plastic straws it wouldn’t have a significant impact on the ocean’s total plastic waste.
So why did the reusable straw movement gain so much traction? Because it is such a small change people can make in their daily lives that allows them to feel like they are making a difference when in reality - they aren’t. Most people understand the detrimental impact humans have had on the environment and many feel guilt. So, they look for ways to curb their environmental impact as much as possible. However, most people will only make small changes to reduce waste, because they don’t want to actually go through the burden of making major lifestyle changes.
Plastic items that are the biggest contributors of waste in the oceans are cigarette butts, plastic food packaging and plastic bottles. But giving up smoking or easy to-go packaged food isn’t something most people are willing to do.
If someone tells you to skip the straw at Starbucks and get the straw-less lid alternative, you’ll do it. You’ll feel like you’ve made a difference. In actuality, you still just purchased a single-use plastic cup and lid.
Am I saying to just keep on using plastic straws anyways? No. Plastic straws still constitute a percentage of the ocean’s plastic. If you are someone who doesn’t need to use plastic straws due to a disability, then you probably should cut them out. But, eliminating plastic straws shouldn’t be the first priority in trying to get rid of ocean pollution.
The reusable straw movement should act as a stepping stone towards real means of radically reducing our plastic use. For example, introducing a tax on plastic bags or banning single-use plastic bags like the city of Gainesville has done. These measures may actually be accredited to movements like the reusable straw one.
While solutions such as a tax on plastic bags help reduce the waste of the average citizen, they leave out the elephant in the room — major corporations. Companies contribute far more to climate change and plastic waste than individuals. Coca-Cola, Pepsico and Nestle are the top three producers of plastic trash, according to Greenpeace.
With all the focus on what individual consumers can do to reduce their plastic waste, major corporations are not being held responsible. Simultaneously, people are constantly being preached to recycle, take shorter showers and install energy efficient light bulbs to help “save the planet.” But why should the little guy bear the burden of protecting the environment while the greatest contributors to climate change do nothing?
While holding major corporations responsible for plastic pollution is complicated and not as trendy as the anti-straw movement, it's what needs to be done for the sake of the environment. Researchers estimate plastics will outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050. If we keep following “solutions” to end plastic pollution, such as the reusable straw movement rather than addressing the real issue, the Earth will suffer as a result.
Cassidy Hopson is a UF journalism junior. Her column appears on Thursdays.