In the face of mounting pressure from environmental groups and legislation, some businesses are making the switch from single use plastics to sustainable alternatives — think straws made of stainless steel, paper, and even Twizzlers with the ends chopped off.
Not Starbucks. With pressure mounting on the company to curb its massive plastic problem (see my op-ed An Open Letter to Starbucks), Starbucks has announced that it will forgo its infamous green straws by 2020 — only to replace them with plastic sippy cup lids.
While this switch does eliminate straws, a nasty source of plastic pollution that cannot be recycled, Starbucks has maintained its alliance with the fossil fuel industry for packaging that will continue to harm our planet. And with no recycling plan in place, the most likely fate for these plastic lids is either landfill or the environment.
The Ocean Conservancy recently released the results from its 2017 International Coastal Cleanup report; for the first time since this data was collected over the course of 30 years, all of the top ten items littering beaches worldwide are made of plastic — pushing glass, aluminum, and paper off the list. Nicholas Mallos, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program says, “Given that plastic production is rising, this could be the start of a long and troubling trend.”
Straws came in at number seven, while plastic lids were number nine — just ahead of polystyrene take-out containers at number ten. As usual, the most common trash on beaches worldwide were cigarette butts, with plastic filters that do not biodegrade on land or at sea. The remaining items were plastic food wrappers (second), bottles (third), bottle caps (fourth), grocery bags (fifth), other plastic bags (sixth), and to-go containers (eighth).
The increase in plastic pollution is due to our national policy of extracting as much fossil fuel as possible, leading to a glut of cheap petrochemical materials, all while cars become more efficient.
A December 2017 article in The Guardian explains:
“The global plastic binge which is already causing widespread damage to oceans, habitat and food chains, is set to increase dramatically over the next 10 years after multibillion dollar investments in a new generation of plastics plants in the US. Fossil Fuel companies are among those who have ploughed more than $180 billion since 2010 into new “cracking” facilities that will produce the raw material for everyday plastics from packaging to bottles, trays and cartons. The new facilities – being built by corporations like Exxon Mobile Chemical and Shell Chemical – will help fuel a 40% rise in plastic production in the next decade, according to experts exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis that scientists warn already risks “near permanent pollution on the earth.”
This boom in plastics production is a direct result of the boom — and resulting price decrease — in shale gas production in the United States. Kevin Swift, Chief Economist for the American Chemistry Council, trade association for petrochemical producers, makes the connection clear:“I can summarise [the boom in plastic facilities] in two words … Shale gas. … There has been a revolution in the US with the shale gas technologies, with the fracking, the horizontal drilling. The cost of our raw material base has gone down by roughly two thirds.”
While the use of plastics is increasing, the global market for plastic waste for recycling has dried up to a trickle. China, once on the receiving end of our plastic waste — once our largest export to the country — has closed that door; its economy no longer needs such a polluting industry. Plastics recycling in the U.S. is all but dead, as the cost for virgin petrochemical material is so cheap. And recycling was never a solution to plastic pollution. Only 9% of all plastic manufactured has been recycled to date, while 79% of it has accumulated in our landfills and in the environment.
With the Trump Administration, the Republican party, and corporations favoring fossil fuels, we face a dire future as our oceans warm and drown in plastic waste, our shorelines recede under rising seas, our skies fill with petrochemical manufacturing pollution, and our waters grow more toxic from extraction and spills.
Single use adult sippy cups are not the solution to plastic pollution; they are just another example of the same old one-way, throw-away thinking that is destroying our planet.
Lisa Kaas Boyle, Esq. is an environmental attorney and co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition.