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Starbucks Vows to Ditch Plastic Straws by 2020. How Will the Oceans Change?

Straws make up a small portion of ocean waste, but banning straws can be an important first step to cutting down on other plastics

Recyclable lids will be used on all Starbucks cold drinks except the Frappuccino. (Starbucks)
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In a bid to reduce plastic waste in oceans, Starbucks will phase out plastic straws from all of its stores by 2020. As Jennifer Liberto of NPR reports, the coffee chain has announced that its 28,000 locations will gradually replace the straws with custom-designed recyclable lids that have drawn comparisons to “adult sippy cups.”

The new lids are already being popped onto a small number of Starbucks’ cold drinks, but a wider rollout will begin this fall in Starbucks stores in Vancouver, Canada, and Seattle, Washington, according to Danielle Wiener-Bronner of CNN. The company said in a statement that the straw-free lids will eventually become the standard option for all cold drinks except the Frappuccino, which will be served with paper or compostable plastic straws.

Starbucks states that the switch from single-use straws to lids means that 1 billion fewer straws will be used in its stores each year. The lids are made from a type of plastic called polypropylene, which, unlike straws, is recyclable. “[W]e feel this decision is more sustainable and more socially responsible,” Chris Milne, director of packaging sourcing for Starbucks, says in the statement.

The company’s announcement comes one week after Seattle, where Starbucks is headquartered, became the first major U.S. city to ban plastic utensils and straws. New York and San Francisco are considering similar measures, according to the Associated Press, and smaller cities in California, like Malibu and San Luis Obispo, have already started cracking down on the consumption of plastic straws and other utensils.

Starbucks is also not the first major company to reckon with its use of plastic straws. Shortly after U.K. prime minister Theresa May announced her plans to ban plastic straws and several other plastic products, McDonald’s, which goes through an estimated 95 million straws each day, vowed to switch to paper straws in all of its locations in the U.K. and Ireland. Nearly 500,000 people have signed a petition by the advocacy group SumOfUs calling on the fast food chain to stop using plastic straws worldwide—but McDonald’s shareholders ultimately rejected a proposal to do just that.

The number of plastic straws that are used globally and that end up in waterways is unclear, but improperly discarded straws can undoubtedly have a dire impact on the environment. They get eaten by fish and pose a danger to other marine creatures; a hard-to-watch viral video of a straw being removed from a turtle’s nostril may have kicked off a global push for the reduction of plastic straw use, reports Laura Parker of National Geographic.

In reality, however, straws make up a relatively small proportion of the huge amount of plastic that is being dumped into the world’s oceans. Adam Minter of Bloomberg reports that straws account for less than .03 percent of the approximately 8 million metric tons of plastics that make their way into the ocean each year. In the Ocean Conservancy’s 2017 Coastal Cleanup Report, straws only ranked 7th in a list of trash types that had been collected from beaches in 112 countries, lagging behind more ubiquitous offenders like cigarette butts and plastic bottles and caps.

Why, then, have some environmentalists been focusing their efforts on plastic straw reduction? In some ways, straws are an easy target. With the exception of people with certain disabilities who rely on straws to drink, we don’t really need to use plastic straws. And truly cutting back on plastic waste in the ocean would be a mammoth undertaking. Surveys have found, for example, that 46 percent of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, by weight, is abandoned fishing gear, but creating policies to reduce "ghost gear," which would require international cooperation, is much more complex than simply skipping the straw for your iced latte.

Straws are also, environmentalists hope, an entry point to a larger conversation.

“Our straw campaign is not really about straws,” Dune Ives, executive director of Lonely Whale, which spearheaded Seattle’s anti-straw movement, tells Radhika Viswanathan of Vox. “It’s about pointing out how prevalent single-use plastics are in our lives. Putting up a mirror to hold us accountable. We’ve all been asleep at the wheel.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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