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Plastic straws: Everyone uses them, and that's the problem

Researchers pulled a 4-inch piece of plastic straw from the nose of a sea turtle off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica in 2015. The video has been viewed more than 20 million times and has inspired many to examine the effects of plastic waste on marine life. [Photo courtesy of Nathan Robinson]
Published Mar. 27, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — The next frontier in the fight to save the planet is written on a paper sign taped to the front door of Pom Pom's Teahouse & Sandwicheria on Central Avenue.

Straws available upon request. We are trying to reduce our carbon footprint.

Across the country, from Fort Myers Beach to Malibu, Calif., municipalities are targeting the single-use plastic straw, an often unnecessary auxiliary to drinks that is now a top-10 polluter of the world's beaches.

St. Petersburg, a waterfront city that relies on tourism, could be next. A City Council committee is weighing its options, from discouraging the use of plastic straws to outright banning them.

Banning plastic bags and straws in other cities, said St. Petersburg City Council member Gina Driscoll, has shown a "dramatic reduction in the litter that goes in the waterways."

St. Petersburg relies on its waterfront for so much, she said, shouldn't the city look at doing the same here?

"I really believe that it's our responsibility to be good stewards of our waterfront."

• • •

The rate at which Americans use straws is astonishing.

On average, the nation uses about 500 million straws a day, according to the National Parks Service. That's about 1.5 straws per person every 24 hours.

"I did a double take," said Hawaii State Sen. Karl Rhoads when he saw the 500 million-straws-a-day figure. He added: "I thought it was a year."

He sponsored a bill in the Hawaii State Legislature this year that would have banned plastic straws. It didn't pass.

Straws come with everything: water at restaurants, iced coffee at Dunkin' Donuts, sodas at fast food joints. Most are used just once. Where do they go after that?

Usually landfills, because they don't decompose and are difficult to recycle. But the real problem is that they can also end up in waterways.

Each year, said Nick Mallos, the Ocean Conservancy's director of trash free seas, plastic straws are among the top 10 items found on coastlines around the world.

That's where they can do the most damage, affecting marine life. Straws can break into bite-sized pieces and be eaten by fish, introducing the plastic into our food chain.

Removing straws from the equation would only put a dent in a much larger problem. More than 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans each year, Mallos said. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2050, there could be more plastic in the oceans than fish.

And a study published last week said the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a trash repository floating between California and Hawaii, was four to 16 times larger than previously thought.

It's almost the size of Alaska and still growing.

"Ocean plastics, at the end of the day, is not an ocean problem," Mallos said. "It's a people problem."

• • •

Many of the activists fighting the plastic straw problem said they drew inspiration from the same thing: a turtle.

In 2015, researchers collecting sea turtle samples off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica found a turtle with something up its nose. In a video that's been viewed more than 20 million times on YouTube, the researchers grip the straw with pliers and yank, to the obvious discomfort of the turtle.

Blood dribbles down the turtle's nose and the animal closes its eyes as it tries to avoid the pliers. The video ends as the researchers finally pull free the 4-inch piece of plastic from the animal's nostril.

The video delivered the far-away problem of ocean pollution right to smart phones worldwide.

"Plastic pollution is a big reality for me, at least, because I see a lot of plastic and how turtles are affected by plastic," said Christine Feggener, a marine biologist and Texas A&M doctoral student who recorded the impromptu nasal procedure. "But not everybody lives that reality."

Officials in Malibu cited the video when discussing the city's new ordinance, passed last month, banning the sale and use of plastic straws and cutlery.

Malibu has a population of about 13,000, said Mayor Rick Mullen, but another 15 million visit each year to enjoy the city's famous beaches. Malibu wasn't the first municipality to take on the straw issue, Mullen said, but he's happy to use the beach town's high profile "to set the bar where it should be."

In Florida, Fort Myers Beach passed a straw ban in November.

• • •

It's not yet clear what St. Petersburg's straw ordinance could look like.

Driscoll said the city could start a public awareness campaign, or it could follow Pom Pom's lead and require patrons to ask for straws, or it could ban them altogether.

Reducing straw waste isn't just good for the environment, it can be good business, too. Diana Lofflin, a California-based activist and founder of StrawFree.com, said restaurants she's worked with that only offer straws upon request have seen savings by giving fewer out. Sometimes it's enough money to pay for straws made from biodegradable materials like paper, which can be slightly more expensive.

Pom Pom's owner Tom Woodard said he's seen those savings. Each week, he used to go through three straw boxes, each with several hundred straws. Now, he only goes through one box.

What about people who really, really want a straw? Lofflin said they should buy reusable metal ones and carry them around.

• • •

Elimating plastic straws would not only help save the oceans — it could also help save you from developing wrinkles.

The repetitive act of sucking on a straw causes lines to form around the mouth, especially in women, said Dr. Susan Weinkle, a Bradenton dermatologist. That's because using straws engages the orbicularis oris, the facial muscle responsible for puckering lips.

"When you suck on a straw, when you smoke a cigarette, or when you pucker to kiss… anything you do to contract that muscle can cause wrinkling," she said.

"Lets save the puckering for the third thing."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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