This county is on a mission to stop straws sucking the life out of our oceans

This county is on a mission to stop straws sucking the life out of our oceans

If you’ve been watching Blue Planet II, you’ll know what incredible, beautiful and fascinatingly wondrous places our oceans are. Countless millions of fish inhabit the sea, and besides being an important food source for much of the world's creatures, oceans also regulate our climate and provide up to 70 per cent of the world's oxygen. They are, by far, the largest ecosystems on Earth. 

And yet they're now drowning under the weight of a rising tide of plastic. With eight million tonnes of the stuff ending up in the sea every year, it is estimated that by 2050, the weight of all of the plastic in the ocean will be more than the weight of all the fish. Injuring marine animals, and being broken down, swallowed by fish and absorbed into our food supply system, the impact of "disposable" culture is more acute - and threatening - than ever.

But now, a British county is on a mission to make a big difference by taking issue with one small item: plastic straws. 

Cornwall, a county in Southwest England, is known for its beaches, surfing and seafood, and as the home of Poldark. It boasts over 400 miles of coastline and so understands the effects of ocean pollution more than most. The Final Straw Cornwall campaign is encouraging businesses and individuals to stop using plastic straws and proposes a complete ban on them in future, similar to the one that is due to come into effect in Seattle in 2018, which will prohibit the use of plastic straws and cutlery in the city. If it goes ahead, Cornwall will be the first place in the UK to enact such protection. 

With the campaign now gathering speed, dozens of businesses, including celebrity haunt The Scarlet Hotel, have pledged to join the campaign by banning plastic straws from their establishments. For the first time the popular Boardmasters music festival will also go plastic free. James Neale, co-founder of the campaign, explained the aims behind the Final Straw Cornwall:

"I have for a long time had my head in the sand and ignored the steady degradation of our oceans and beaches despite being a surfer and being close to the sea. It wasn’t until a conversation with a 69 year old grandmother who was bending my ear about plastic pollution in the ocean and she mentioned straws and I thought straws really!? Why is this an issue? We spoke some more and decided that straws could be a brilliant starting point to engage people, the lowest common denominator. Ask pubs, cafes, restaurants and bars to stop using plastic straws and ask the public to refuse them."

It may seem like a small, irrelevant item to declare war on, but when you look at the statistics, it’s clear why this is such a major issue. Although there are no reliable figures regarding the number of plastic straws used in the UK each day, the US Department for the Interior estimates that Americans get through up to 500 million straws in a single day. To put that into perspective, that number could fill 125 school buses every day and works out to a mind-blowing 46,000 buses full of little plastic tubes, every single year. With a lifespan of all of about 20 minutes, each of these straws can take up to 500 years to decompose. Yes, that means you’ll be dead, buried and digested by worms long before your straw - and every other piece of plastic on earth right now - ever biodegrades.

It is only since the 1960s that plastic straws have been used in bars and restaurants; before this, straws made from paper and glue were commonly used. While plastic straws remain the cheaper option for retailers, in recent years the market for eco-friendly catering materials has seen a huge growth in offerings, with everything from recyclable cups to biodegradable cutlery now available. Compostable straws can offer a handy alternative for takeaway businesses, although there is still a question of many of these will actually make it to the compost heap once they leave the premises. Reusable straws, made from stainless steel or glass, are now widely available and may offer a more cost-effective solution for business unwilling to drop them altogether.

So could the growing support for this campaign and others like it inspire more retailers follow suit and ditch plastic straws? Well, some are already doing so, with restaurant chain MEATliquor and pub chain Weatherspoons already in the process of phasing out plastic straws. But it seems that others may be slower on the uptake - when I reached out for comment to Ribena and Tesco, both of whom sell cartons or pouches of juice with plastic straws attached, neither responded. Capri Sun said that they would share the suggestion with their Marketing team - although notably, not their design team.

This not the first time the issue has come to prominence; when this horribly graphic video of a turtle having a drinking straw extracted from its nose swept the internet in 2015, it touched - and enraged - hearts across the world. If you were stupid enough to get a crayon stuck up your own nose as a kid, you’ll know what an experience this is. But hey, at least that was your own fault.

Neale is optimistic about the impact that the Final Straw Cornwall campaign will have, even if plastic straws are not officially banned, citing the success of the 2015 introduction of a five pence charge for plastic carrier bags in UK shops. Since this move, plastic bag usage has dropped by 85 per cent: “The difference the carrier bag charge has made just goes to show that when you get people thinking about their own consumption, it has a huge impact on their decision making-process. It doesn't need to be a huge, daunting thing that you need to do make a difference. It’s working because its a simple idea. Choosing not to use a straw is something anyone can do." 


Featured illustration by Egarcigu