WASHINGTON (AP) — Cities and nations are looking at banning plastic straws and stirrers in hopes of addressing the world’s plastic pollution problem. The problem is so large, though, that scientists say that’s not nearly enough.
Australian scientists Denise Hardesty and Chris Wilcox estimate, using trash collected on U.S. coastlines during cleanups over five years, that there are nearly 7.5 million plastic straws lying around America’s shorelines. They figure that means 437 million to 8.3 billion plastic straws are on the entire world’s coastlines.
University of Georgia environmental engineering professor Jenna Jambeck calculates that nearly 9 million tons (8 million metric tons) end up in the world’s oceans and coastlines each year, as of 2010, according to her 2015 study in the journal Science .
Organizers of Earth Day, which is Sunday, have proclaimed ending plastics pollution this year’s theme. And following in the footsteps of several U.S. cities such as Seattle and Miami Beach, British Prime Minister Theresa May in April called on the nations of the British commonwealth to consider banning plastic straws, coffee stirrers and plastic swabs with cotton on the end.
The issue of straws and marine animals got more heated after a 2015 viral video showing rescuers removing a straw from a sea turtle’s nose in graphic and bloody detail.
But a ban may be a bit of a straw man in the discussions about plastics pollution. Straws make up about 4 percent of the plastic trash by piece, but far less by weight.
“Bans can play a role,” says oceanographer Kara Lavendar Law, a co-author with Jambeck of the 2015 Science study. “We are not going to solve the problem by banning straws.”
Marcus Eriksen, an environmental scientist who co-founded the advocacy group 5 Gyres, says working on bans of straws and plastic bags would bring noticeable change.
“Our cities are horizontal smokestacks pumping out this smog( plastic ) into the seas,” Eriksen says. “One goal for advocacy organizations is to make that single-use culture taboo, the same way smoking in public is taboo.”
The key to solving marine litter, Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council, says, is “in investing in systems to capture land-based waste and investing in infrastructure to convert used plastics into valuable products.”
Even though Jambeck spends her life measuring and working on the growing problem of waste pollution, she’s optimistic.
“We can do this,” Jambeck says. “I have faith in humans.”