In 2018, I opted to eliminate plastic, single-use straws from my personal habits and lifestyle. I grew accustomed to saying “no straws, please” at restaurants, and to simply removing lids from drinks and sipping with my lips rather than through a tube. I did have a few mishaps and caved to a few straws of shame, but I wasn’t alone in saying straws suck – many business, municipalities, corporations, and other entities also made efforts to reduce or completely eliminate straws from use.
But have these efforts really helped birds?
The answer isn’t as straight as most straws – it’s more like those wacky, curvy, curly straws we loved as kids but that made drinking take three times as long because you had to suck your milk, juice, or soda along a much further distance, just to get a taste. But eventually you did get a drink, and yes, reducing straws will help birds. But first, we need to realize just how straws can hurt birds.
It’s easy to see how some types of plastic hurt birds. Plastic fishing line, for example, easily gets wrapped around legs or wings, causing injuries, immobility, or even amputations. We’ve all seen the photos of milk jug rings trapped around a bird’s bill or neck, causing starvation or death. And we’ve been horrified at the pictures of dead seabirds with all manner of small plastic bits clogging their guts, from bottle caps and cigarette lighters to small toys and colorful shards from who-knows-what. But straws don’t do those things… Or do they?
As straws decompose from UV exposure, they become brittle and fracture easily, breaking into tiny shards that are easily swallowed by fish, frogs, salamanders, and other potential prey. Microplastics – itty bitty pieces that are impossible to filter out or determine their exact origins – have even been documented in insects, indicating that bugs are ingesting plastic. All these prey species can then get eaten by birds, and all the plastic in the prey will eventually build up in birds’ digestive tracts as well. Undoubtedly, some of this plastic was once part of straws that are now littering the environment – floating in rivers and lakes, washing up on shorelines, rotting in wetlands, discarded at the side of the road, etc.
With smaller and smaller pieces of plastics infiltrating even insect populations, that means all birds that eat insects – warblers, tanagers, buntings, thrushes, even hummingbirds – are at risk from plastic. And while yes, some pieces will be able to pass through their digestive systems and come out the other end, or be regurgitated as pellets, sharp shards can cause internal injuries that may lead to dangerous, even fatal infections, even if the plastics are able to leave birds’ bodies.
Let’s just say that the plastic itself isn’t directly hurting the bird – there are no injuries. But when plastic is in a bird’s stomach, there is less room for food, and the bird isn’t getting appropriate nutrition. Young birds that need extra nutrition for healthy growth are especially vulnerable to this problem, and as more plastic builds up in a bird’s digestive tract, the bird can actually starve to death with a belly full of plastic bits. When the bird that dies is a chick, the adults may not have the time or opportunity to lay more eggs and raise another brood, so the entire population’s breeding success is reduced.
But let’s go even further, and say that doesn’t happen. The bird that has eaten bits of plastic, including bits of straws, only has a little plastic in its gut, but it still feeds well and gets enough nutrition. That’s not so bad, right? Wrong. The plastics that birds are ingesting aren’t always food-safe varieties, meaning they often have dangerous chemicals in their composition. As the plastic sits inside the bird for days, weeks, or even months, that’s a long time for those chemicals, even ones that may be deemed safe for incidental human use, to leach out and contaminate the bird (after all, we can suck on straws, but they’re not safe to eat). This could include dyes – from all those colorful straws – as well as even more toxic materials, such as pesticides, bleach, or other poisonous chemicals that may have been stored in plastic bottles that have become litter and now contaminate birds and other wildlife.
Clogged guts, injuries from shards, impeding nutrition, decreased breeding, toxic contamination… That’s a lot of ways straws can hurt birds. But we’re not done yet.
- Plastic straws are made of polypropylene, which is often not recycled, and many straws themselves are too small to be recycled. This leads to more refuse in landfills, which reduces habitat available for birds.
- When straws are individually packaged in paper wrappers, that requires the use of more paper resources – ultimately, cutting down trees and destroying even more habitat.
- As straws are shipped to restaurants, bars, and other facilities, that requires the use of fossil fuels and adds to greenhouse gasses and other pollutants that further damage habitat.
- As we continue to use straws, we perpetuate a single-use, throwaway culture that disregards the cycle of other materials and the consequences of our actions.
Yes, admittedly those effects may seem connected to birds in only limited, minor ways – using one straw isn’t going to devastate a rainforest. But the ultimate result is the same – absolutely all of our actions and consequences are connected. Will eliminating straws solve all the problems birds face? Not even close. But if skipping straws helps eliminate even one small problem, that’s one more step along a better path for the birds. And isn’t that a step worth taking?