EnvironmentFeatures

The Last Straw

Metal straw in a glass mason jar.

For some, it was the baby albatross whose autopsy revealed a belly full of bottle caps and other plastic debris. For others, it was the video of the sea turtle with the plastic straw stuck in its nostril, a team of marine biologists trying to remove it with a pair of pliers as it struggled in anguish.

It’s hard to say what finally catapulted the global plastics crisis, generations in the making, into the mainstream. The environmentalist Annie Leonard addressed the issue over a decade ago in a short film, The Story of Stuff, which has become a movement in itself. But far from slowing, the plastic juggernaut is set to triple in the next decade. A million plastic bottles are being purchased around the globe every minute; in that same minute, the equivalent of a truckload of plastic hits the world’s oceans. Plastic waste was discovered recently in Antarctica, revealing that the substance has now become quite literally ubiquitous.

The problem appeared on our doorsteps when China — until recently the main importer of plastic waste from Europe and the U.S. — stopped accepting 24 types of waste in January, including PET and PVC plastics. The recycling market has gone into a tailspin, but the result has been a public awakening.

The list of cities, states, countries and businesses around the world that have adopted or are considering bans on single-use plastic items has exploded in recent months. California passed a statewide plastic bag ban in 2016, and now New York City and Hawaii stand poised to follow suit, with the cities of Malibu, Miami Beach and Seattle, among others, having already passed plastic straw bans or restrictions. In the private sector, Starbucks, Hyatt, Marriott, American and Alaska Airlines, Disney, SeaWorld and Royal Caribbean have banned single-use plastic drinking straws, while Swedish homeware giant IKEA announced it will remove all single-use plastics by 2020.

Plastic is out, and an army of innovators is at work designing its replacements.  

Caoilin Krathaus and Lila Mankad, now sixth-graders at Houston’s Hogg Middle School, were already on the case more than two years ago. For them, the catalyst was seeing their beloved Woodland Park filled with plastic bags — dangling from tree branches, snagged on rocks, choking the Little White Oak Bayou that flows through it.

“Our Girl Scout troop cleans up the park, but after every flood, it just comes back,” said Lila. “So we realized the solution isn’t to keep on cleaning after it; it’s to stop it at its source and ban plastic bags altogether.”

The two consulted with the experts — their parents, their fourth-grade teacher and, of course, the internet — and came up with a plan: To ban the ubiquitous bags in the city of Houston, following the lead of Austin, Laredo and hundreds of other cities around the world.

They posted a petition on Change.org that garnered more than 4,000 signatures. They met with the mayor, testified before Congress, participated in press conferences and rallies. Then they waited, along with the rest of the state, to find out if the Texas Supreme Court would strike down the Laredo plastic ban and with it, the initiatives of nearly a dozen other Texas cities.

On June 22, that’s exactly what the Supreme Court did. But Lila and Caolin, and their allies throughout the state, vow that the battle is far from over. They realize that prohibition alone isn’t enough: there will have to be alternatives to plastic products for bans to work.

And there are. The recent wave of restrictions is seeing a corresponding surge in innovations: edible straws, bamboo toothbrushes, bioplastics made of everything from avocado pits to algae.

“These regulations are going to compel people to work within the constraints and find ways around it,” said Scott Sonenshein, a professor of management at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business  and the author of Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less – And Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined.

Some people freeze up when a constraint is placed on them, he says — they can’t imagine how they’ll cope. “But there’s a very different response, what I call ‘stretching,’ which is trying to not just work through it but to find a better way because of the constraint. For example, some restaurants have been experimenting with straws that are pasta: they are actually edible in themselves. So, one, you have the novelty of something that looks different; but two, you’ve turned what could have been a problem into an opportunity to make your drinks more interesting.”

Houston entrepreneur Christie Nugent saw the challenge of reducing plastic waste as an opportunity. Last year, she launched Plum Vegan Catering, Houston’s only catering service offering a “zero-waste” option. She gets her produce from local growers and provides reusable dishes for the events she caters. When the event is over, she swings by and picks them up — along with all organic waste, which goes back to the farm for compost.

More recently, former hairstylist Megan Dye saw a need for a community support group to take waste reduction to the next level.

“I started noticing the quantities of trash I was consuming while working as a hairstylist,” said Dye. She began researching waste reduction strategies and discovered that plastic cannot be recycled indefinitely — and some kinds of plastic can’t be recycled at all. After seeing the massive amounts of garbage generated in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, she decided to do something about it. Armed with information, Dye founded a Facebook group, Living Zero Waste Houston, to help streamline the process of waste reduction.

Farther from home, former Los Alamos Laboratories waste management engineer Emma Cohen was so fed up with the pollution caused by plastic straws that she quit her job to promote the foldable steel Final Straw, raising $1.8 million on Kickstarter.

“I think more and more information is coming out about the devastating effects of plastics on our environment,” she said. “When you throw something away, where is that mythical land of ‘away’?”

The answer to that question is becoming painfully evident — more so in developing countries that don’t have the infrastructure to contain the mountains of debris. In India, plastic bags choked Mumbai’s storm drains, causing disastrous flooding that led to the city’s initiative to charge a fee for plastic bags. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently announced a plan to eliminate all single-use plastics throughout India.

Other countries have followed suit. In the span of a single week, the European Union moved to ban single-use plastic products with readily available alternatives and Chile became the first South American country to ban plastic bag use by retailers. In Mexico, Veracruz became the first state to ban of both plastic straws and bags.

To Manuel Maqueda, founder of the Plastic Kills campaign and the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a day of reckoning long in the making has finally arrived.

“The fact that humans have chosen a material that the planet cannot digest — that we’ve chosen to design things so that their sole purpose is to become garbage… struck me as such an invisible and large problem I decided to turn my eyes to it and I promised myself that I was going to do something about it,” he says. 

Maqueda, author of the upcoming book The Meaning Economy: How Meaning is Transforming Our Economy and Our Future, teaches social entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of California, Berkeley. He says the decline of plastic is a powerful moment in many ways: It’s a unique opportunity for entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity. But it’s also indicative of a larger trend, he says.

“People are realizing we don’t need to make compromises; we can have an economy that brings abundance to people while nurturing life,” he says.  

Studies have found that at least 60 percent of the public is willing to pay more for a product that is environmentally or socially sustainable, said Maqueda. “The best thing about this change is that it’s being supported in a 360-degree manner not just by entrepreneurs but by investors and citizens,” he says. “Everybody is getting behind this.”

That includes Houston middle-schoolers Lila and Caolin, who are finding new ways around the constraints placed on their activism. Faced with opponents who argued that banning plastics would cost jobs, Lila and Caolin teamed up with a former refugee Afghan artisan, Khatera Khorushan, through The Community Cloth to create a micro-enterprise selling reusable designer bags — all made with “upcycled” materials destined for the landfill.

Like Lila and Caolin, Megan Dye has found that many people are eager to cut back on their consumption. “I’ve found Zero Waste strategies that I could use every day that are easy and in a lot of ways an upgrade to our standard of living,” she said. “Houstonians lead very fast-paced lives so I want to create a supportive environment that makes waste reduction quick and easy. Each citizen has the power to make a difference; we just need to be given the tools to make good decisions.”


Tracy L. Barnett is an independent writer based in Guadalajara. She aspires to a zero-waste lifestyle but hasn't yet found a substitute for Rancheritos.