The fight to eliminate single-use plastics has gained momentum in 2018 as major corporations, including Starbucks, McDonald’s and Disney, have pledged to replace plastic straws with more sustainable products.
The announcements come at a time when the environmental impact of plastic waste is increasingly hitting the mainstream.
In the U.S. alone, nearly 500 million plastic straws are used per day, generating enough waste to wrap around the circumference of the earth 2½ times.
Single-use plastic waste significantly threatens marine life and contributes to an influx of land pollution, as such waste rarely makes it to landfills or becomes recycled. At the current rate, scientists project there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
In this article, we offer a comprehensive look into the various initiatives to decrease plastic waste taken by corporations, governments and universities.
In early June, Starbucks announced it will phase out plastic straws in more than 28,000 international locations by 2020.
The initiative will successfully eliminate over 1 billion straws per year, according to a Starbucks report.
The company will use recyclable, strawless lids on most of its iced drinks instead. The one exception lies in the Frappuccino, which will be served with a straw made of either paper or compostable plastic.
“By nature, the straw isn’t recyclable and the lid is, so we feel this decision is more sustainable and more socially responsible,” Chris Milne, director of packaging sourcing for Starbucks, said in a statement.
“Starbucks is finally drawing a line in the sand and creating a mold for other large brands to follow. We are raising the water line for what’s acceptable and inspiring our peers to follow suit.”
But going strawless isn’t the only sustainable initiative Starbucks is taking.
The company, alongside McDonald’s, is leading the NextGen Cup Challenge, a project by Closed Loop Partners, which aims to develop a fully recyclable and compostable hot cup. It has invested $10 million in the project.
“This global effort reflects their recognition that in addition to their own ongoing efforts to identify a more sustainable cup, the industry as a whole needs to work together to invest in and accelerate emerging solutions and at the same time coordinate with the recovery system,” Kate Daly, executive director for the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, told The University Network (TUN).
“This type of collaboration is essential if we’re to effect change on a global scale. And the NextGen Cup Consortium is actively engaging other food retailers to join this effort,” she said.
In addition to leading The NextGen Cup Challenge, McDonald’s, the world’s largest restaurant chain, has announced it will phase out plastic straws in its 1,361 locations in the UK and Ireland by 2019.
The company will also test-drive sustainable alternatives to plastic straws in some locations in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe later this year.
As a whole, McDonald’s plans to source 100 percent of guest packaging from renewable, recycled or certified sources by 2025.
In a more recent announcement, The Walt Disney Co. has said it will stop using plastic straws and plastic stirrers at all of its locations by mid-2019, eliminating more than 1,754 million straws and 13 million stirrers annually.
Furthermore, a number of companies within the hospitality and travel industry have taken the initiative to reduce plastic waste.
Hotels, including Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, AccorHotels, and Intercontinental Hotels Group, have all pledged to eliminate or cut back on single-use plastics.
Additionally, American Airlines, Fiji Airways, Thai Airways, Alaska Airlines and Carnival Cruise Line are among travel companies that have made an effort toward greater sustainability.
Corporations aren’t the only ones pushing back against single-use plastics; a number of government entities are stepping in as well.
On July 1, Seattle became the first U.S. city to implement a governmental ban on single-use plastics.
The city requires all food service businesses to find recyclable or compostable alternatives to packaging and serviceware items, including disposable containers, cups, straws and utensils.
Failure to comply may result in a $250 fine, but city leaders have stated the initial phase of the law is more about raising awareness.
Following Seattle’s lead, a number of U.S. cities in California, including Davis, Malibu, Oakland, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz and Berkeley, have proposed bans on plastic straws in restaurants.
Additionally, Miami Beach and Fort Myers, Florida, have initiated bans on plastic straws, and San Francisco and New York City have proposed bans as well.
In Europe, France became the first country in the world to propose a ban on plastic plates, cups and utensils in 2016, a law which will go into effect by 2020.
Additionally, Scotland plans to be rid of plastic straws by 2019, and the UK’s Prime Minister Theresa May announced a ban on all sales of single-use plastics in the UK starting as early as 2019.
This year, the European Union proposed a ban on single-use plastics in an effort to protect marine life.
Governments from over 60 countries have introduced fees or bans to eliminate single-use plastic waste, according to a 2018 UN Environmental special report on single-use plastics.
At the collegiate level, faculty, administration and students have joined in the fight to eliminate plastic straws and other single-use plastics as well.
In April, the University of Portland became the first U.S. college to ban plastic straws in all of its dining halls.
The decision came after General Manager Kirk Mustain of Bon Appetit, the university’s food service provider, was shown a viral video of a turtle bleeding as a straw was pulled from its nasal cavity.
“We worked in conjunction with the environmental science department on this. It was brought to my attention on what a problem this is and how it affects marine life,” Mustain told TUN.
“The message was solidified when I saw a video of a sea turtle that was having the full length of a straw pulled from its nose. After that the decision was easy to make.”
The university reported that, starting next year, every University of Portland college graduate will help prevent the use of enough plastic straws to equal the height of a 20,000 story building.
“It’s the right thing to do. Small steps like this lead to other decisions that have greater impacts,” said Mustain.
Since the University of Portland made the decision, a number of other colleges have followed suit.
California State University at Chico, Knox College in Illinois and Columbia University have pledged to ban plastic straws, while other Bon Appetit clients, including Furman University, Vassar College, Washington University in St. Louis, and Roger Williams University, are in the process of doing so.
Penn State has also initiated efforts to provide eco-friendly cups, utensils, plates and straws to Beaver Stadium, a venue that can hold up to 150,000 people per football game.
“One key factor to making these systems work is that nothing is allowed in the venue unless it can be recycled or composted,” Judd Michael, a professor of business management for natural resources industry at Penn State, previously told TUN.
“This is fairly easy for closed venues like a basketball arena, but very difficult in places where there is tailgating or where fans can bring in their own coolers.”
Michael and his team have also been working with the Pocono Raceway and NASCAR Green to help them become more sustainable.
At Dartmouth College, a student-run initiative resulted in an influx of “Green2Go” take-out boxes, a washable and reusable alternative to standard take-out boxes that generate a massive amount of plastic waste in dining halls each year.
Additionally, universities around the world are researching and working on sustainable alternatives to plastic.
For example, researchers at Georgia Tech have recently discovered a method to create food packaging out of materials derived from crab shells and tree fibers, while researchers at Colorado State University have created a biomaterial derived from natural microorganisms that could be used to replace plastic products.
Similarly, researchers from Michigan State University have engineered a method to use a community of bacteria to make biodegradable plastic from sunlight.
“Ultimately, we aren’t just creating alternatives to synthetic products,” Taylor Weiss, who led the research while he was a postdoctoral researcher in the Ducat lab at the MSU-Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory and is now an assistant professor in the Environmental and Resource Management Program at Arizona State University, said in a statement.
“We’re trying to ask nature to do what it does best: figure out the problem for us.”
And researchers at The University of Bristol and Paraba State University in Brazil have developed a method to reuse plastic to remove harmful pollutants found in wastewater as a means to tackle both pollution issues and the presence of carcinogenic synthetic dyes in wastewater.
Additionally, Iowa State University and Washington State University are involved in developing and operating a bioplastics center called the Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites (CB2 ), which focuses on developing high-value biobased products from agricultural and forestry feedstocks.
CB2 is a joint effort by the Biopolymers & Biocomposites Research Team at Iowa State, the Composite Materials and Engineering Center at WSU, and industry members. Working together, the center will push the boundaries of renewable resources for plastics while making their research commercially relevant.
Efforts to cut down single-use plastics have increased in the past year, as a number of institutions, governments and individuals have come together to implement alternatives.
However, plastic waste is still a massive issue, and getting rid of plastic straws is not enough to solve the problem.
There is still a lot of work to be done if we want to clean up our oceans, reduce landfill waste, and create more environmentally sustainable products.
But until then, Mustain encourages people and institutions to take the necessary first step and eliminate single-use plastics.
“Don’t overthink it,” he said.
“Make the decision and follow through. Sometimes these type of decisions are over-vetted, but solutions will present themselves if you are looking to solve an issue.”
Natalie Colarossi is a journalism major and global studies minor working toward her bachelor’s degree at Ohio University. She is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has covered a number of topics including art, culture, politics, music, and travel. Her greatest passion and priority is to travel, and she hopes to experience as many places and cultures as possible.