Straws are only a small percentage of the problem.
Credit: Dave Rudkin/Getty Images

2018 is the year the world turned against the plastic straw. The relatively simple idea of axing the wasteful straws seemed to resonate strongly enough that it’s causing major chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks to take action and everywhere from New York City to the entire European Union to consider bans. But as the world collectively pats itself on the back, scientists point out that—even in the ocean, where the damage from these plastics is especially concerning—straws only make up a small percentage of global plastic pollution. According to an Associated Press article from earlier this year, plastic straws amount to about 4 percent of plastic trash by piece in oceans and along coastlines, and less than 0.025 percent of this type of pollution by weight—a staggeringly small number. “Bans can play a role,” oceanographer Kara Lavendar Law, who co-authored a study for the journal Science that determined these numbers, told the AP. “We are not going to solve the problem by banning straws.”

Still, apparently a significant amount of Americans—about a third—are willing to go further and put their money where their beliefs are. According to a survey commissioned by the PR firm Ingredient Communications, 33 percent of the people they polled in the U.S. were in favor of a tax on all plastic packaging of food products.

“There is high demand for food manufacturers to use more plastic-free packaging, and for supermarkets to introduce plastic-free features into their stores,” Richard Clarke of Ingredient Communication was quoted as saying by DairyReporter, but he also pointed out doing so isn’t as easy as it sounds. “However, the benefits of plastic packaging for food and beverage product are often overlooked. It helps protect goods from damage, extends shelf life, and creates a brand identity, which influences consumers’ purchasing decisions. A key challenge for manufacturers and retailers is to find alternatives to plastic packaging that maintain these benefits for the supply chain and consumers.”

Meanwhile, willingness to tax plastics was even higher in the United Kingdom. The same study found that 52 percent of British respondents supported the idea of a plastic packaging tax. The reason might be that the U.K. has already seen plastic taxes proving productive. As DairyReporter points out, since Brits enacted a nationwide tax on plastic bags in 2015, use has dropped by over 80 percent.

The larger takeaway would seem to be that plastic pollution is a large problem. Obviously, turning the corner on plastic straws is a helpful step, but the reality seems to be that the public needs to be willing to sacrifice beyond a single convenient item to really tackle the plastics issue.