In 2014 alone, Americans tossed out more than 33 million tons of plastic, the vast majority of which was not recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. One 2014 study estimated there are 270,000 metric tons — and more than 5 trillion particles — of plastic in the world's oceans. Straws and stirrers make up more than 7 percent of plastic products found in the environment, according to Better Alternatives Now, or BAN 2.0, an analysis done by several pollution research groups.
New York City Councilman Rafael L. Espinal Jr., a Democrat from Brooklyn, introduced a bill last week that would prevent restaurants in all five of the city's boroughs from providing plastic straws to customers.
"I've become increasingly aware of the impact that single-use plastic has on our oceans and environment," Espinal tells NPR. "Over the past few years, I started looking at single-use plastics that we can begin to eliminate without having severe impact on New Yorkers' daily lives. Plastic straws happen to be one of those [products]."
The bill would require that all establishments that serve food or drinks — from Yankee stadium to street food vendors — phase out plastic straws by 2020. Espinal says he hopes to get the bill passed by the end of this summer, adding that Mayor Bill de Blasio is already on board to support the ban.
Companies including Alaska Airlines, as well as educational institutions such as University of Portland and Knox College, have also moved to ban plastic straws.
In the United Kingdom, several McDonald's locations have begun testing paper straws and putting plastic straws behind the counter. However, last week McDonald's voted down a shareholder proposal to study the issue at the chain's 37,000 locations globally. The fast-food giant's distinctive striped straws are the second-most common brand found in the environment, according to the BAN 2.0 report. The most common: the bright green Starbucks straw.
Marcus Eriksen is the co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on reducing plastics pollution, and a contributor to the BAN 2.0 paper and the 2014 study on ocean plastic pollution. He says straws are part of a larger movement to reduce the use of plastics in our daily lives.
"Straws are just the next of many," Eriksen says. "Microbeads, plastic bags, styrofoam — they're all on the way out."
Some companies are exploring alternatives to plastic straws made of paper or wood. Other businesses have gotten creative, like Paradise Cove restaurant in Malibu, Calif., which now uses compostable, edible pasta in place of plastic straws.
There are also reusable straws made of silicon, glass and metal on the market. And some businesses have instituted a policy where customers must explicitly request a straw — plastic or otherwise — in order to get one. That's the law in Santa Cruz, Calif., which not only has banned plastic straws but also plastic cutlery and hot beverage lids. Nowadays, the city's food vendors can only provide straws, lids, cutlery and condiment packages if a customer requests them — even if these products are made from compostable materials.
New York Councilman Espinal likewise hopes to push his city to eliminate other plastics beyond straws. Another bill he introduced last week would prohibit vendors in parks and beaches from selling beverages in plastic bottles.
Espinal says he's gotten largely positive feedback for his call to decrease plastic waste. Hundreds of bars and restaurants in New York have already moved to phase out plastic straws of their own accord.