According to national nonprofit Strawless Ocean, an estimated 71 percent of seabirds and 30 percent of turtles have been found with plastics in their stomachs.
Delaware restaurants are tackling a source of ocean pollution: plastic straws.
“This is a step we needed to take,” Grotto Pizza vice president Jeff Gosnear said last month when the company announced it was no longer giving out plastic straws. “We are one of the largest restaurant groups in the area. This will reduce the amount of plastic straws in our restaurants by over 15 million a year.”
Grotto Pizza has 23 restaurants in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania. It is the latest chain to stop handing out a straw with every beverage.
Dee Durham, founder of the nonprofit Plastic Free Delaware, is working to involve as many restaurants as she can.
“They save money and shelf space, plumbing calls,” she said. “And they help save the environment at the same time.”
An ocean of straws
More than 500 million single-use plastic straws are used daily in America alone. Though they are technically recyclable, due to their light weight and small size, the vast majority of them never reach the recycling plant. Instead, they end up in the ocean.
“They’re then ingested by marine animals,” Durham said. “I’m sure you’ve seen the sea turtle video.”
That 2015 video showed scientists in Costa Rica removing a plastic straw that was lodged in an olive ridley sea turtle’s nose. The video brought the problem of plastic straws in our oceans to the forefront of many minds.
According to national nonprofit Strawless Ocean, an estimated 71 percent of seabirds and 30 percent of turtles have been found with plastics in their stomachs. Marine life has a 50 percent mortality rate after swallowing plastic.
In addition to the effect plastic straws have on marine life, they’re slowly making their way to the top of the food chain.
“They break down into tiny particles that are toxic vehicles that attract toxins and are toxins,” Durham said. “An increasing number of studies show there are plastic particles in the fish we eat. That’s a scary thought.”
Straws aren’t a necessity for the majority of humans.
“Over time, restaurants have gotten to the point where they just put a straw in everything,” Durham said. “It’s just part of an overall bad habit we Americans have gotten into with single-use plastic.”
Manufacturing straws takes oil and natural gas, which are limited resources, not to mention the energy used to transport them.
“It’s a big waste of resources for something we just don’t need,” Durham said.
Since beach tourism is the driving force behind many Delaware restaurants, owners tend to agree.
In addition to Grotto, another chain with a large presence in Delaware, The Greene Turtle, has dropped straws. Their efforts will keep an estimated 7 million straws out of the ecosystem.
“The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille values protecting marine life,” said Layla Nielsen, director of marketing.
International companies, like Starbucks, have embraced the trend as well. Starbucks announced recently that it will eliminate single-use plastic straws from its more than 28,000 stores worldwide and introduce both a strawless lid and alternative-material straws.
Starbucks’ hometown, Seattle, passed a ban on plastic straws in July. Other cities are considering bans.
Delaware has no legislation to ban plastic straws in development.
Respecting the disabled
While many people have no need for straws, for some, they’re very important. Children, the elderly and the disabled sometimes rely on straws to drink.
John McNeal is a 50-year-old Camden man who was involved in a motorcycle crash 27 years ago that left him quadriplegic. He’s a Delaware state employee and also the Director of the State Council for Persons with Disabilities.
“I don’t have the physical dexterity to pick up a cup without a cap and straw in a manner that it wouldn’t spill,” McNeal said. “When I go to a restaurant, typically, I request a to-go cup, which generally comes with a plastic straw. It’s necessary for me to have a beverage independently.”
Plastic, as opposed to paper or other alternative straw materials, is also sturdy enough to bite down on and move inside the cup, an action not everyone might realize is sometimes necessary.
“I’d bite right through a paper straw,” McNeal said.
About one in five Americans are disabled, according to the CDC. For them, paper straws can become a choking hazard, other materials pose allergy risks and Starbuck’s new lid isn’t accessible to someone who can’t pick up the cup.
“I, like most people with disabilities, have as much consideration for the environment as anyone,” McNeal said. “But a straw, to me, is every bit as important as a fork and knife.”
For the disabled, it’s important that sturdy straws are available to them upon request and without judgment.
For others, foregoing straws is an easy way to address a huge problem.