Written By: Michael P. Cavanaugh, Environmental Law Graduate Fellow

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest offshore plastic accumulation zone in the world’s oceans and located between Hawaii and California, is now three times the size of France and growing.[1] Some reports project that the ratio of plastics to fish in the ocean will be 1 to 1, or worse, by 2050.[2] Why? Plastic items are cheap to make and easy to produce, supporting a throw away after one use culture. This is an unsustainable fad—a “throw-away” culture.

Plastic straws are prime examples; they are easy to produce, cheap to make, and easy to throw away. Most plastic straws are composed of polypropylene, which is generally recyclable.  However, their size makes them incompatible with the process in which larger items made out of polypropylene are recycled.[3] Once discarded, many of these plastics end up in our oceans and other waterbodies, harming and killing marine life. So what can we do? Eliminating plastic straws is one step in the movement against the use of disposable plastic.

The Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University has taken this step.[4] Pace Law has eliminated plastic straws and plastic take-out containers and replaced them with paper straws and paper take-out containers, which are biodegradable and recyclable.

This move demonstrates the relatively simple, but incredibly important steps that our society should be taking to end an unsustainable way of life. Viewed from a narrow lens, one might think that these efforts are too disruptive to our way of life, or that these measures are merely the next green fad. However, from a broader lens the throw-away culture is the fad. Like so many other items in use today, plastic straws are a relatively new invention. People have been drinking from straws for thousands of years, but plastic straws did not become popular until the 1960’s.[5] From a broader historic lens, plastic straws are the fad, and one that has contributed to a polluted environment.

Other entities have also committed to banning plastic straws. Starbucks has announced a plan to phase out plastic straws over the next few years, and the city of Seattle has enacted an ordinance that prohibits establishments from providing disposable plastic straws.[6] And, straws do not have to be plastic. In addition to paper straws, metal, glass, silicon, and bamboo are available options. With varying pros and cons, these alternatives all demonstrate a more sustainable option and help to end the throw-away culture.

[1] Marian Liu, Great Pacific Garbage Patch Now Three Times the Size of France, CNN (Mar. 23, 2018), https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/23/world/plastic-great-pacific-garbage-patch-intl/index.html

[2] World Economic Forum, The New Plastic Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics 14, (2016).

[3] Recyclebank, Because You Asked: What’s So Bad About Plastic Straws?, Recyclebank (Nov. 15, 2016), https://livegreen.recyclebank.com/because-you-asked-what-s-so-bad-about-plastic-straws.

[4] Pace Law Announces New Sustainability Measures to Move Towards a Plastic-free Campus, (Aug. 21, 2018) https://law.pace.edu/news-and-events/news/pace-law-announces-new-sustainability-measures-move-towards-plastic-free-campus.

[5] Supra note 3.

[6] Starbucks to ban plastics straws in all stores by 2020, BBC (July 9, 2018), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-44774762; Food Service Packaging Requirements, Seattle.gov, http://www.seattle.gov/util/forbusinesses/solidwaste/foodyardbusinesses/commercial/foodpackagingrequirements/ (last visited Sep. 7, 2018).