Legal, Plastic Pollution
April 22 2016

Keeping Plastic Straws at Bay (and out of the Bay)

by Staley Prom

Plastic straws.  They’re small and seemingly harmless, and not something we typically think about, even while using one to sip on an iced tea or mai tai.  Yet plastic straws are a major source of litter and marine plastic pollution, and in the last few years, have been one of the most commonly found types of litter picked up along California beaches on annual Coastal Cleanup Days.  (See here and here)  Straws are frequently littered, or, given their light weight, caught by the wind, and washed into storm drains that empty into waterways, and ultimately our ocean and beaches.  A couple weeks ago, while strolling on a relatively clean and uncrowded stretch of beach in north Santa Monica, I found 24 plastic straws littering the beach, within only 20 minutes.  Similar to single-use plastic bags, these seemingly innocuous items are used for a matter of minutes, but remain in the environment for thousands of years.

In the United States alone, it is estimated that 500 million plastic straws are used and discarded every day, and 175 billion straws are used a year.  That is a ton of straws (and quite literally, tons of straws).  For more information about plastic straws and the harms they inflict, check out Surfrider’s straw pollution fact sheet here.

All of this unnecessary waste has prompted the need for change.  Numerous restaurants around the country have already voluntarily stopped using plastic straws, and offer alternatives only upon request.  Surfrider chapters’ Ocean Friendly Restaurants (OFR) programs, which aim to reduce single use plastic waste at restaurants, include plastic straw reduction policies in the suite of qualifying criteria.  Check out some of Surfrider's OFR programs at these websites: San Diego OFRWest L.A. / Malibu, and Hawaii OFR.

Meanwhile, in 2012, Miami Beach, Florida became the first U.S. city to prohibit beachside restaurants from using plastic straws.

Now, on the opposite side of the U.S., Surfrider Foundation’s San Francisco chapter is advocating for a similar new ban on plastic straws and stirrers for S.F.  The chapter has started by creating an action alert to encourage the introduction of an ordinance to ban straws and stirrers.  Assuming every San Francisco resident uses one straw per day (which is a conservative estimate based on national statistics), over 4,800 pounds per day of plastic straws could be eliminated by a ban in San Francisco.  While that’s hard to fathom, literally over two tons of plastic pollution could be eliminated by a straw ban every day.  Surfrider San Francisco is hopeful that such a ban would set a strong example for other cities and counties around the country, and stop the needless waste.

In the meantime, individuals can collectively have a huge impact by choosing not to use straws.  When ordering drinks at restaurants, simply ask your server for your drink with no straw.  As Surfrider chapters around the country will tell you, plastic straws suck.  Check out the following links to learn more about Surfrider chapters' Plastic Straws Suck campaigns: South Jersey campaign, San Francisco campaign, and Vancouver campaign.