Be Your Own Birder

Where Have All the Straws Gone?

Remember, just a few years ago, so much concern about single-use plastic, when one of the biggest conservation concerns in the world was choosing the right reusable straw, when plastic straws were seen as a great environmental threat to wildlife? What happened?

Plastic Straws - Photo by Chemist 4 U
Plastic Straws – Photo by Chemist 4 U

Bigger Concerns

What happened, of course, was bigger concerns that threatened humanity and our own lives, not just the lives of wildlife. What happened was a pandemic of initial proportions that hadn’t been seen in century. What happened was single-use plastic was seen as part of a solution, fast and convenient sanitation when cleanliness was key to saving lives.

I will not dismiss the connection between cleanliness and mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, however microscopically small the connection between straws and contamination may be. (At no time in the past two years did I ever hear any reputable resource suggest that straws had any impact on transmission, viral loads, or sanitation, but I can see the possible logic.)

In the meantime, global shutdowns briefly eliminated straws from our lives, when we were unable to visit our favorite local restaurants and bars, and so saying no to straws or bringing along our own reusable options wasn’t necessary.

A Bigger Threat

Even while we weren’t worried about straws, a greater threat to wildlife appeared with a vengeance – the same threat hoped to be part of the salvation from the virus ravaging the world. Discarded face masks began appearing throughout the environment: floating in rivers, washing up on beaches, blowing across fields, and otherwise getting tangled in habitats.

Mask Trash on the Beach - Photo by Falco Ermert
Mask Trash on the Beach – Photo by Falco Ermert

Some concern circulated initially, noting that masks’ elastic loops could strangle and choke birds and other wildlife. People were urged to dispose of masks properly, to break ear loops before discarding them, or to switch to reusable masks to reduce waste and promote more sustainability.

Whatever your personal feelings about masks and their impact on the pandemic, there is no denying their impact on wildlife. Disposable face masks are not biodegradable, and will not completely break down in the environment – instead, they will decay into microplastics, and will potentially be working through the environment for generations. Hundreds of billions of face masks have been discarded during the pandemic, and they will be with us for far longer than lockdowns, mandates, testing, and other emergency pandemic measures.

Straws Are Still There

Yet, it is important that we remember other single-use plastic is still around, and still poses a threat to wildlife – including straws. As we return to restaurants and bars, we are once again blithely presented with straws. The concern about this plastic has vanished, and so many people have returned to simply using straws without thought, just because they are there.

There have been some changes, however. I’ve noticed different straw brands and textures at some restaurants, some of which are obviously paper or other biodegradable materials. At one restaurant – a favorite barbecue joint – the straw wrappers clearly indicate a more environmentally responsible utensil.

Biodegradable Straw - Photo by Melissa Mayntz
Biodegradable Straw – Photo by Melissa Mayntz

The best choice, however, is to still skip the straw. I’ll admit, I’ve been very lax about straw use in recent months, and I need to do better. I still don’t believe that reusable straws are the best option, but simply saying “no thanks” and not using straws is ideal.

At this time, I’m going to recommit to saying no and skipping straws, to take that small step to protect our environment and the birds and wildlife we all enjoy. Will you do the same? Share your own recommitment in the comments!

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