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So, what’s the big deal about plastic straws anyways?

Something as innocuous as a drinking straw doesn’t usually make headlines– until this year. Over the past several months, several international mega-companies have announced their goals to eliminate plastic straw usage within the next few years. These progressive steps are the result of years of green group pressure to ban straws and a culmination of scientific reports revealing the true impact something as seemingly insignificant as a drinking straw can have on our environment.

Last July, Starbucks broke headlines by announcing they are dropping plastic straws by 2020.Their replacement? New plastic sippable lids for cold beverages, resembling what social media fanatics have dubbed the “adult sippy cup.” Following Starbucks was Marriott International, declaring its phasing out of straws from 6,500 UK locations within the next year. Other notable companies following suit include Hilton, Royal Caribbean, Alaska Airlines and American Airlines.

Although straws have recently drawn a sudden wave of media attention, their controversy and detrimental effects have always been urgent. It’s estimated that we use 500 million straws daily, and that’s in the United States alone. The sheer magnitude of their usage poses several significant concerns for marine wildlife. Because straws are too small and lightweight to be recycled, they often end up in landfills, in the streets, or even worse, directly in waterways. These plastic straws are not biodegradable. Instead, they will disintegrate into smaller bits of plastic, more easily consumable by birds and marine wildlife.

The effects plastic consumption has on animals is grave. Once plastic is ingested, an animal’s risk of death increases by 50%, according to Strawless Ocean, a non-profit organization dedicated to straw elimination. Unfortunately, a research panel for the Plastic Debris conference  found that 71% of seabirds already have plastic in their systems. Sea turtles are similarly vulnerable to the dangers of plastic straws, which easily puncture their digestive organs, leading to death. It’s estimated that 100,000 marines animals die annually from plastic straw pollution, and this number is predicted to increase over time.

The good news is that these signs of crises aren’t being taken lightly. Springing up around the country are organizations, events, and new alternatives centered on this issue. Groups like For a Strawless Ocean, One Less Straw, and The Last Straw commit themselves to the education and prevention of plastic straw usage. Events like National Skip the Straw Day, held annually on February 23, aim to cultivate community awareness and participation in the cause.  And plastic straw replacements like edible straws, paper straws, and steel and silicone straws are also being introduced into the market. All of these steps are crucial in eliminating an impending environmental tragedy.

What can you do to help? Keep Louisiana Beautiful’s director Susan Russell recommends getting involved with organizations like The Last Straw and contacting your local and state representatives to advocate for change. Invest in reusable alternatives, like FinalStraw keychain straws or bamboo straws, or join the #1LessStraw movement and pledge to stop using plastic straws at onelessstraw.org.

“It won’t happen overnight,” Russell said. “But it starts with you.”

— Written by Emily Russell