The other day, I ordered an orange juice from the Marketplace. It came in a plastic cup with a plastic lid and a plastic straw. I enjoyed the beverage, of course, but I must admit that with every sip I took, I felt a pang of guilt. Here’s why: Production of plastic has increased so rapidly over the past six decades that, according to National Geographic, a whopping 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been created. This wouldn’t necessarily be bad if the plastic remained in use for a long time, but most of this plastic is only used once before being disposed of. What’s worse is that 91 percent of plastic isn’t recycled and instead ends up in landfills or scattered throughout the environment.
It takes some types of plastic an average of 450 years to biodegrade, and other types don’t biodegrade at all. Ocean animals often mistake plastic as food and as a result, are strangled, starved and often killed. I’m sure we’ve all heard countless stories of turtles whose bodies have grown around the plastic rings they’re stuck in, dolphins who can’t swim because they have plastic bags stuck on their flippers and dead whales washed up to shore with bellies full of plastic. It pains me to think of the atrocious environment we have forced these animals to live in.
As plastic persists in the environment, it undergoes a phenomenon called photodegradation, in which the sun’s rays break it apart into its individual molecules, which are also known as microplastics. Plastic also releases chemicals into the water as it degrades, which are unavoidably absorbed by fish. When we consume fish, we are undoubtedly also consuming trace amounts of plastic and the chemicals released by it. Humans are not at all immune to the health risks of the plastic epidemic.
All that being said, I now pose a solution. Quite simply, we must stop using plastic. Or, at least, we must drastically reduce the amount we use. The good news is we can start doing this right now. A single-use plastic that we can ditch this very moment is straws.
In 2016, Starbucks stores all over the world began to phase out their use of plastic straws, replacing beverages with a lid that can be sipped and doesn’t require a straw. A few weeks ago, we witnessed this change firsthand at the Starbucks on campus. The Marketplace has also begun to ask if we want straws with our beverages, giving us the option to refuse them and think about our impact. If you don’t want or need a straw, this is the first simple solution.
Another alternative is carrying a reusable straw with you. There are many stainless steel, bamboo and silicone alternatives available for purchase on Amazon, Etsy and other sites. As a college student myself, I understand the apprehension toward spending money, but also as an environmentalist, I urge you to consider the positive impact this purchase will have. The average American uses about 38,000 or more straws between the ages of 5 and 65. Would you rather use and dispose of 38,000 plastic straws, or use one straw for years without impact?
Plastic straws are only a small part of the larger plastic problem, but getting rid of them is a simple and effective way to begin tackling it. While writing this article, I purchased my own stainless steel straw and plan to carry it with me at all times. Next time I order a delicious orange juice from the Marketplace, I will take pride in refusing the plastic straw and choosing to use my environmentally friendly alternative. I urge you all to do the same.
Georgia Kerkezis is a junior majoring in environmental studies.