What once seemed like an innocuous tool to sip a cold beverage is now being banned across cities and by major corporations as a way to help curb the negative impact straws are having on the environment.
The Ocean Conservancy reports that the world’s oceans are littered with 150 million tons of discarded plastic. And, based on findings from the U.N. Environment Programme’s Clean Seas campaign, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year, straws a considerable percentage of it.
Yet, there’s a larger story that only starts with straws — often referred to as “gateway plastics” by the Plastic Pollution Coalition. While plastic straws make up only 4 percent of all the plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, they’re an important flashpoint.
The public is finally taking notice, after experts like oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau have spent years raising awareness around the issue. As Cousteau sees it, the problem is that a single plastic straw that’s used for around 15 minutes never decomposes and ends up harming wildlife.
Nothing showed the impact more than when marine biologist Christine Figgener filmed her team removing a straw from a sea turtle in 2015. The impactful video (not safe for the squeamish) has generated more than 32 million views after going viral on YouTube.
It had such an impact that cities like Berkeley, Oakland and Malibu, Calif.; Miami Beach, Fla.; and Seattle, Wash. started banning the use of plastic straws in 2017. As it turns out, it’s a global effort. India, whose coasts have a prime sea turtle nesting habitat, has significantly rid of pollution over the last several years at Versova Beach and is planning to abolish all single-use plastics by 2022.
Leading the Charge
Major corporations are now also helping to lead the charge. Marriott International, among the first to start eliminating disposable straws and stir sticks from its restaurants, bars and cafes, plans to have them completely removed by July 2019. (They’re already gone from its corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland.)
The move came shortly after Starbucks, which operates cafes in many Marriott hotels, said it will stop using plastic straws at its 28,000 stores by 2020.
Soon after, other heavyweights like Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, McDonald’s, Royal Caribbean, and SeaWorld Entertainment followed suit with their own plans to ban straws.
The impact already is being felt in cities. After Adrian Grenier and Lonely Whale Foundation Seattle launch a “Strawless in Seattle” campaign for a month, businesses and resident stopped the use of two million plastic straws.
No Easy Undertaking
Eliminating straws isn’t necessarily easy.
Marriott needs to remove them from its more than 6,500 hotels and resorts across 30 brands around the world over the next year.
But the impact will be great: That’s around one billion plastic straws per year and a quarter billion stir sticks that won’t wind up in the ocean or landfill.
“We are proud to be among the first large U.S. companies to announce that we’re eliminating plastic straws in our properties worldwide,” says Arne Sorenson, president and CEO of Marriott International, upon announcing the company’s plan to ban the straw. “Removing plastic straws is one of the simplest ways our guests can contribute to plastic reduction when staying with us – something they are increasingly concerned about and are already doing in their own homes. We are committed to operating responsibly and — with over one million guests staying with us every night — we think this is a powerful step forward to reducing our reliance on plastics.”
Yet, what do you replace traditional straws with, if anything?
Marriott plans to provide straws to guests upon request. In most cases, those come in the form of paper straws produced by Aardvark, the only maker of paper straws in the U.S.
The Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa in August became Hawaii’s first resort to remove plastic straws from its restaurants, luaus and other venues, eliminating about 30,000 plastic straws per month.
Some of Marriott’s hotels had already begun to go straw-free before Marriott’s corporate announcement. The Los Sueños Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort in Costa Rica, eliminated the use of plastic straws earlier this year. The St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London was among 60 U.K. hotels that removed plastic straws this past February; since then, the hotel has received positive feedback from guests and has halved the number of straws used at the property.
Elsewhere, the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort in March became one of the first hotels on Southwest Florida’s Paradise Coast to rid plastic straws, eliminating about 65,000 straws per month. In June, the Four Points by Sheraton Brisbane removed plastic straws and stirrers and adopted alternate products throughout the hotel including at Sazerac, the tallest bar in Brisbane.
And Element Hotels started the year by going one step further, pairing with S’well to eliminate not just plastic straws, but also plastic water bottles at the eco-conscious brand’s properties across the U.S.
Through the partnership, S’well water bottles can be used in room during stays and purchased at Element’s stores. S’well products are also available for purchase at Element’s sister brands, including AC Hotels by Marriott, Aloft Hotels and Moxy Hotels.
S’well launched in 2010 with a mission to rid the world of plastic water bottles by creating products that deliver beautiful design and quality performance, the company says. It has a Million Bottle Project, a campaign to raise awareness about the impact of plastic on the environment.
Education is Key
Education will play an important role in spreading the word to consumers about the impact of straws on the environment.
Marriott will spend the next year identifying sources of alternate straws, and training staff at its managed and franchised properties to modify customer service, while using the time to deplete their existing straw supply.
“By eliminating plastic straws, we have been able to create a substantive dialogue with our guests about the importance of protecting the ocean and endangered animals like the honu green sea turtle.” – Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa general manager Tetsuji Yamazaki
Through a partnership with The Ritz-Carlton, Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program educates guests at resorts in Maui, Hawaii; Grand Cayman; Puerto Rico; and soon Santa Barbara, Calif.; Los Cabos, Mexico; and St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, around the issues impacting local wildlife.
The French environmentalist and son of legendary oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, Jean-Michel has long led a charge against straws after coming across islands of floating plastic polluting the ocean. The effort is part of Marriott’s long history supporting new ways to reduce landfill waste. Today, it’s replacing small toiletry bottles in guest bathrooms at 1,500 hotels in North America with larger, in-shower dispensers by the end of 2018.
The move should eliminate 35 million small plastic toiletry bottles annually, in an effort to address shifting consumer, environmental and social needs. In fact, the company hopes to reduce its environmental footprint by reducing landfill waste by 45 percent by 2025.
“Our guests come to stay with us to enjoy Maui’s beautiful environment and incredible marine life, so they’re as eager as we are to reduce harmful pollution,” says Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa general manager Tetsuji Yamazaki. “By eliminating plastic straws, we have been able to create a substantive dialogue with our guests about the importance of protecting the ocean and endangered animals like the honu (green sea turtle).”
As for that sea turtle that became YouTube famous, he’s doing just fine.
Figgener caught up with the tagged turtle recently, telling TIME magazine, “he seems to be fine and doing his thing.”
She’s happy that companies like Marriott are stepping up to the cause of banning straws, but stresses that, “I hope this is the first step. I hope that in five years time, we don’t even need to discuss plastic straws — that there’s too many alternatives.”