SINGAPORE: Saying no to plastic straws might feel like a conscientious effort to reduce marine litter, but this global movement does little to stem the pollution, experts said.
One industry observer told Channel NewsAsia that the real problem lies with poor waste management systems in countries that leak huge amounts of garbage into the ocean.
“The best that can be said about the collective actions to eliminate straws is that it’s good at raising awareness, but that’s not the solution,” said Mr Steven Russell, plastics division vice president at the American Chemistry Council, which represents multi-national chemical and plastic manufacturers.
Mr Russell was in Singapore earlier in July to meet with waste companies, plastic companies and consumer brands on working together to solve global waste management problems.
The anti-plastic straw movement is believed to have taken off in 2015, after a video showing a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose went viral.
In Singapore it is no different: KFC is just one in a growing list that includes Millennium Hotels and Common Man Coffee Roasters to have signed up.
“If you have eyes, you see the images,” Mr Russell said. “Everybody feels understandably compelled to act, so the impulse to reduce what we use is a good one.”
So, what exactly is the problem with the movement? Mr Russell feels it could lull companies and individuals into thinking they’ve done enough to save the ocean, given the relatively short attention such issues get.
“It would be a shame to think we’ve banned straws – we’re done,” he said, dusting off his hands. “That would be environmental malpractice to address only 0.2 per cent of the waste stream. We’re not helping the ocean.”
READ: War on plastic leaves manufacturers clutching at straws
In a recent report on science website phys.org, a pair of Australian scientists estimated that there are up to 8.3 billion plastic straws strewn across coastlines around the world.
Seems like a big number, but even if all those straws were suddenly swept to sea, they would only make up less than 1 per cent of the 8 million tonnes of plastic estimated to enter the ocean in a given year. (Plastics make up about 80 per cent of marine litter.)
This whopping figure, derived in a 2015 study published in the journal Science, is equivalent to five normal-sized plastic bags filled with plastic entering the ocean along every 0.5m of coastline in the world.
“The only thing that is going to help the ocean is getting serious about managing waste in places where it’s not managed,” Mr Russell added.
These places are likely to be middle-income countries with rapidly growing economies, the study noted, as they lack the waste management systems to handle all that extra waste.
China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka were ranked as the top five producers – out of 192 countries – of mismanaged plastic waste in 2010. This was based on an analysis of people living within 50km of the coast.
Mismanaged plastic waste refers to trash that can possibly enter the ocean.
“If people in those places aren’t served by waste collection, if they don’t have a place to put their used things, these fall from their hands to the ground, river and ocean,” Mr Russell explained, highlighting the growing consumer class in such countries.
In this respect, Singapore fares much better. The city-state produced about 6,500 tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste in 2010, coming in at 114th. (China generated almost 9 million tonnes.)
For countries that need help, Mr Russell said an upcoming initiative will see consumer brands set up a fund and offer low to no-interest loans to help communities in Asia improve their waste management. This model is similar to the Closed Loop Fund in North America.
The loans can be used to purchase new garbage bins or invest in recycling technology, for instance.
“That model is being adapted for an Asian context with a focus on Indonesia and perhaps India,” Mr Russell said, adding that the initiative will be announced in October at the Our Ocean Conference in Bali.
While Mr Russell might be speaking as an interested party, his argument is shared by more neutral observers.
Bloomberg columnist Adam Minter wrote that “straws make up a trifling percentage of the world's plastic products, and campaigns to eliminate them will not only be ineffective, but could distract from far more useful efforts”.
The movement, he argued, should instead pressure global seafood companies to mark their fishing nets and gear, which studies said make up a good chunk of plastic garbage in the ocean. This holds a person or company accountable when the gear is abandoned.
Ms Olivia Choong, who co-founded the environmental group Green Drinks Singapore, said the current movement is “not effective in removing marine litter because straws are only one of many things that make it to the marine environment”.
“Plastic bags, Styrofoam boxes and cigarette butts are some common things found at beaches,” she said. “Sometimes slippers too.”
Nevertheless, Ms Choong added that plastic straws are a “good starting point” when it comes to reducing single-use plastics.
Plastic-Lite Singapore founder Aarti Giri agreed, saying the movement is a “great first step in the right direction”.
Noting that plastic straws are among the top 10 items littered along beaches and waterways, she said cutting down on them “will definitely help” reduce plastic gunk in the ocean and its harmful effects on marine life.
“Anti-straw movements have a larger effect of creating awareness in the minds of consumers on the overall negative environmental impact of disposable plastics, not just straws," she added.
“They also help in reducing the number of disposable plastic straws used in Singapore on a day-to-day basis, which also has a positive overall environmental impact from (saving) the energy and material resources used in the manufacturing and logistics of these straws."
Still, Ms Giri called for the effectiveness of such campaigns to be measured using studies with statistical data. “I sincerely hope for this movement to be a progressive one and not one that terminates at plastic straws,” she stated.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Short of starting a campaign to mark fishing gear or improve trash collection in Indonesia, what else can you do to stop marine pollution?
Ms Giri said taking part in beach clean-ups can help raise awareness on plastic pollution and develop a fondness for the environment. But this should translate to behavioural changes, like bringing your own bag and bottle when going out.
“If we cannot transfer this awareness towards being able to reduce usage of the plastics we litter pick, it will not have a positive difference,” she added.
In particular, Ms Giri said to avoid Styrofoam containers as they are light and easily washed into the sea. They also break up easily, making it tedious to pick up during beach clean-ups.
And then there’s the obvious. Don’t litter, said Ms Choong, especially at the beach. “There is so much trash that can be found on our shores, brought in through water currents from somewhere else, or generated by residents,” she added.