The Problem of Plastic Straws (And How Each of Us Can Make a Difference)

A Q&A with Jackie Nuñez, founder of The Last Plastic Straw.

It’s National Drinking Straw Day! Each day, more than 500 million plastic straws are used and discarded in the U.S. alone. Plastic straws consistently make the top ten list of items found, according to Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup data. In the last three years, plastic straws have climbed the list to the Number 5 spot. 

We spoke with Jackie Nuñez, founder of The Last Plastic Straw, about plastic straw pollution and what we all can do to make a difference.

More than 500 million straws are thrown away each day in the U.S. alone. What are the biggest sources of this plastic pollution?

There is the obvious "on the go" culprits (to-go drinks with lids and juice boxes) that we see strewn in gutters, parks, schools, and on beaches, but the sheer amount that are served daily from dine-in restaurants and bars are staggering as well, many in close proximity to waterways and beaches.

Most people don't think about the plastic straw, and are shocked to learn that plastic straws are not recycled. They are used for minutes at best and tossed "away" in our environment, where they will outlive us all and generations to come. I often ask people to consider that fact when discussing the "need" for single-use straws made of plastic.

What is your first step in reaching out to businesses about plastic straws? 

The first step is simply asking for no straw when ordering a drink. (I have to say it when I order water as well!) I usually have a conversation with the server or bartender and in some cases I ask for the owner or manager. Also if it's busy and I don't speak to management I leave a card with the bill asking them to serve straws only upon request and consider switching plastic straws to reusable or compostable options. You can download the card here. 

Congratulations on your recent success with Belize's Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort switching from plastic to bamboo straws. When did you start speaking with them?

We started emailing this past summer. Hamanasi was brought to my attention by a local author and conservationist named Brandon Wiggins (whom I met in 2015 at a local straw ban meeting in Monterey, CA). Brandon visited the resort in her travels and was impressed with all of their conservation efforts, but noticed they still served plastic straws. We started the conversation over the summer about plastic straw alternatives and sourcing. I give them a lot of credit for their efforts, because it takes considerable effort to not only source a viable, affordable alternative, but also to find a way to reliably source and ship out to their resort in Belize.

Can restaurants and businesses save money by serving fewer plastic straws or switching to a reusable straw?

YES THEY CAN! Cost is actually a non-issue: if businesses simply write on their menus "Straws served upon request" they will find 50-90 percent of their patrons will not ask for a straw. If you think about how many people actually have and use drinking straws at home, you start to get the picture of what is the real "need" for a drinking straw.

The Last Plastic Straw is not against drinking straws, we are against plastic for single-use, and the plastic drinking straw is the poster child for useless single-use plastic. If a business simply served straws upon request for those who need them, it would be cost savings, not only for the business, but for the community they do business in. Consider the savings in waste hauling, landfill, plastic in the environment, clean up, and the overall pollution that results in every stage of a plastic straws existence from manufacture, shipping, health toxicity, and waste.

What can each of us do to start eliminating plastic straw waste?

Simply ask for no straws wherever plastic straws are served. You have more power than you think. If you want to make it official join us and help spread the word in your community, in your travels, and help save the planet one sip at a time!

Visit The Last Plastic Straw. 

Photo by Jackie Nuñez, The Last Plastic Straw.