Updated Jul 23, 2018

Plastic straws play only minor role in global plastics pollution

A father and son paddle through a garbage-filled river as they collect plastic bottles that they can sell in junkshops. Photo: Noah Cellis/Stringer

Major retailers and municipalities are disavowing plastic straws, but they play a relatively minor role in plastics pollution.

Why it matters: If all plastic straws ended up in the ocean in a given year, they would account for 0.03% of the plastics that enter the ocean annually. Many were moved in 2015 when they saw an image of an ill sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nostril, which prompted some of the bans in existence today. But there are far bigger culprits that harm marine life and ocean health, which some worry a straw ban allows people to ignore.

The big picture: More voices are sounding the alarm on waste finding its way into our oceans. There are now major garbage patches in each of the world's biggest oceans, with the most substantial in the Pacific — called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) — and clocking it at twice the size of Texas.

  • Large, semi-permanent currents in the ocean create massive swirling gyres. There are five major ones, and each has a substantial patch of micro and macro-plastics.

Ocean plastic pollution, by the numbers

  • More plastic was produced in the last decade than ever before on earth.
  • The majority of all plastic produced is discarded or disposed of in natural environments. Only a small fraction is recycled or burned.
  • A study published this March in Nature estimated that the GPGP alone holds about 42,000 metric tons of megaplastics (like fishing nets), 20,000 metric tons of macroplastics (like crates), 10,000 metric tons of mesoplastics (like bottle caps) and 6,4000 metric tons of microplastics.
  • Microplastics account for just 8% of the total mass in the GPGP but 94% of the pieces.
    • Being extremely numerous and extremely small, these types of plastics are almost impossible to remove and endanger all marine life that comes into contact with or consumes them.
  • Fishing nets make up the lion's share of waste in the Pacific patch by weight, accounting for 46% of the patch's plastics mass. Lost or abandoned fishing nets, called ghostnets, negatively impact marine habitats and the economy. This number was previously believed to be only about 20%.
  • Approximately 60% of the global plastic demand is for buoyant plastic (think styrofoam). That means about 40% will automatically sink, while the rest can be stranded on the coast or ingested by marine life.

What's next: Understanding the relatively meager role of plastics like straws in the massive problem of ocean pollution may be disheartening to consumers. However, advocates hope that a straw ban will make customers more conscientious overall, leading to further advocacy against ocean pollution, longer term effects that remain to be seen.

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