We should all do what we can to live more sustainably. But the complex operations needed to clean up our oceans will require effort from governments and companies—not just individualsby Lizzie Huxley-Jones / July 26, 2018 / Leave a comment
It is 2018, and plastic straws are the enemy of all that is good. Or at least that’s how it feels.
In the wake of Blue Planet 2’s pleas for reduced plastic use and a distressing viral video of a turtle with a straw lodged in its head, single-use straws have become a favourite target of the environmental movement.
The rhetoric is broadly familiar, rehashing the arguments against plastic bags that led to the 5p charge brought in in 2015 and a subsequent large reduction in their use (Wales saw a reduction in use of 71 per cent in the first three years).
But this time, things seem to have taken a darker tone.
Concerns have been raised over blanket bans and fines, as a large number of disabled people rely on bendable plastic straws. Alternatives of paper, metal and bamboo range from impractical to outright dangerous.
Despite this, businesses, Universities and even whole towns have opted to ban plastic straws.
This vehement focus on a single source of plastic and its users seems both counter-intuitive and at odds with the environmental movement. If we really want to make a difference, we need consider the wider picture.
While the 8.3 million straws estimated to be littering our global coastlines is an astonishing image, it simplifies the issue of ocean plastic. In reality, marine plastic waste is an issue much more complicated than the straw campaign may lead you to believe.
I spent much of my twenties studying marine ecology, followed by work in the third-sector in fishing-related charities. My job relied on collaboration including fishers, campaigners, scientists, governments and industry.
To get briefly technical, plastic marine litter is split into two types: end-user plastics (micro-plastics, bottles, straws polystyrene containers) and those from fishing (like loose nets, buoys, and lines). Plastics pose two main areas of risk for marine life: ingestion (as with the infamous turtle) or entanglement.
Entanglement in lost fishing nets causes a gruesome process known as ghost fishing, where a caught animal dies, baiting the debris and attracting more animals which get trapped. This repeats ad infinitum until the ghoulish gear is removed.
There are many programs tackling global ghost gear—but some of the problems originate in subsistence fisheries, where fishers do not necessarily have the time, energy or finances to regularly search out lost nets.
Clean-up programs supported by industry and government tend to focus on profit-generating industrial fisheries, meaning some fisheries remain a source of waste. These complex processes require cooperation, time, willingness to listen and, crucially, money.
Even if the issue of lost fishing nets was resolved tomorrow, this is still—like straws—only one type and source of plastic, among a multitude.
To focus on any one single issue can lead to complacency about the huge variety of others that need attention.
After all, a major campaign several years ago focused on fish sourcing—a conversation that has died out of the mainstream.
I don’t say this to discourage people from doing what they can, but to urge some perspective. Be wary of campaigns that pitch ridding ourselves of a single source of plastic waste as the panacea to the ocean’s problems. While a singular actionable marketing message is useful in campaigns, it can obscure the wider picture. Fewer plastic bags and straws help, but on its own won’t cure the annual 8 million tonnes of plastic poured into our oceans.
I believe in the mantra of “do what you can, where you can.” Reducing how much single-use plastic we use on an individual level can help us be less wasteful and use fewer resources. But an individualist approach ignores circumstance. From a purely UK-centric economic point of view, it is bizarre to suggest that in a capitalist society under austerity every individual should be able to act in the same way. Swapping to reusable plastics requires the cash to buy Tupperware or bottles, and the time to prepare food in advance.
Similarly, not everyone can eschew meat—especially those from coastal or island countries where 70 per cent of protein comes from fish—or use public transport. If a disabled person with poor bite control needs plastic straws, they should have them.
In general, anyone who makes a change for the better of the planet should be encouraged, not criticised for a lack of perfection. Guilt is a poor motivator for change.
Global waste management can only be tackled through collaboration, and we should all take on those principles when discussing emotive environmental issues: be kind, listen, and remember the wider picture. Equally, remember to keep your focus on industries that could and should be doing more to change their practices around plastic use. Needless packaging should be tackled at the design stage rather than placing the burden of change, and associated guilt, on customers.
And remember, the barrier to plastic-free seas is certainly not disabled people using bendy straws.