New York’s top cocktail bars are facing something of a crisis. A fashionable global protest movement has nightlife venues scrambling to replace their plastic straws with more sustainable alternatives, such as paper ones, on the theory that doing so will reduce plastic waste in the oceans.
It all sound virtuous — but in reality, it’s likely to make matters worse. Straws make up a trifling percentage of the world’s plastic products, and campaigns to eliminate them will not only be ineffective, but could distract from far more useful efforts.
The anti-straw movement took off in 2015, after a video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose went viral. Campaigns soon followed, with activists citing studies of the growing problem. Media interest in the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a floating, France-sized gyre of oceanic plastic — only heightened the concern.
But this well-intentioned campaign assumes that single-use plastics, such as straws and coffee stirrers, have much to do with ocean pollution. And that assumption is based on some highly dubious data. Activists and the news media often claim that Americans use 500 million plastic straws per day, for example, which sounds awful. But the source of this figure turns out to be a survey conducted by a 9-year-old. Similarly, two Australian scientists estimate that there are up to 8.3 billion plastic straws scattered on global coastlines. Yet even if all those straws were suddenly washed into the sea, they’d account for about 0.03 percent of the 8 million metric tons of plastics estimated to enter the oceans in a given year.
In other words, skipping a plastic straw in your next Bahama mama might feel conscientious, but it won’t make a dent in the garbage patch. So what will?
A recent survey by scientists affiliated with Ocean Cleanup, a group developing technologies to reduce ocean plastic, offers one answer. Using surface samples and aerial surveys, the group determined that at least 46 percent of the plastic in the garbage patch by weight comes from a single product: fishing nets. Other fishing gear makes up a good chunk of the rest.
The impact goes well beyond pollution. Ghost gear, as it’s sometimes called, goes on fishing long after it’s been abandoned, to the great detriment of marine habitats. This is a complicated problem. But since the early 1990s, there’s been widespread agreement on at least one solution: a system to mark commercial fishing gear so that the person or company that bought it can be held accountable when it’s abandoned. Combined with better onshore facilities to dispose of such gear and penalties for dumping at sea, such a system could go a long way toward reducing marine waste. Countries belonging to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization have even agreed on guidelines for the process. But while rich countries should be able to meet such standards with ease, in the developing world the problem is much harder. In Indonesia, for example, one study concluded that fishers have little incentive to bring someone else’s net to a disposal point unless they’re getting paid to do so.
That’s where all that anti-straw energy could really help. In 1990, after years of consumer pressure, the world’s three largest tuna companies agreed to stop intentionally netting dolphins. Soon after, they introduced a “dolphin safe” certification label and tuna-related dolphin deaths declined precipitously. A similar campaign to pressure global seafood companies to adopt gear-marking practices could have an even more profound impact. Energized consumers and activists in rich countries could play a crucial role in such a movement.
That’s a harder sell than trendy anti-straw activism, of course. But unlike those virtuous nightclubs, it might actually accomplish something useful.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist.