Plastic Pollution and a Sobering Reality

The photo above is of a Laysan albatross.  It died from being fed plastic, which led to its starvation.  This is a serious problem affecting the Laysan, as the mothers inadvertently kill their children by catching and feeding them pieces of plastic debris.

Other forms of marine life are also greatly impacted by plastics pollution, including whales and turtles from ingesting plastic bags.  We are trashing our oceans, and it is rebounding against us, as plastic debris in our oceans breaks down into smaller pieces that is ingested by tiny marine organisms, which are then in turn eaten by larger organisms and so on up the marine food chain until it becomes part of the seafood we eat.

This post is not meant to be a primer on the problem of plastic pollution itself.  There are documentaries I recommend, such as Angela Sun's Plastic Paradise, which can be viewed on Netflix.  At under an hour, Plastic Paradise is a good introduction to the issue.  For a more lengthier, in depth look at the subject, there is the recently released A Plastic Ocean, which is available for rental or purchase on iTunes.  Below is a trailer for A Plastic Ocean.

Rather, the subject of this post is the frustrating reality that having accepted that there is a problem, is realizing how very hard it is to make any progress in combatting it.

Over the years, I have made some steps in reducing what could be considered the low hanging fruit of the plastics pollution problem, namely, single use disposable plastic bags, bottles, cups and straws.  I have a sufficient quantity of reusable bags for when I do our shopping at the supermarket.  I even have some reusable mesh produce bags for items such as apples, pears, etc.  For the Starbucks near my office, I have a glass cup that I wash after every use.  As frequent Robek's smoothie customers, I have a set of four Robek's reusable cups, one for each member of the family.  I choose, when available, beverages in glass bottles over plastic.  At restaurants, I notify the server that I do not want a plastic straw in my drink when they bring it to me.

The reason I call these items the low hanging fruit is because it is relatively easy to avoid using them, once one's consciousness has been raised on this issue.  The deeper problem of disposable plastic is that so many of the things we buy are packaged in them.  Want to buy a candy or protein bar?  It comes in a plastic wrapper that you throw away within minutes.  Laundry detergent, shampoo, or liquid hand soap?  Plastic container.  Frozen food?  Plastic wrapping and served in a plastic container.  Granted, there are many people passionate about reducing their environmental impact who find ways to eliminate plastic waste from their lives by making products using home made ingredients, for example.  Then there are people like me, who lead busy lives and have families, where taking such radical steps is very difficult.  For those in my boat who are married and have children, there is also the potential for familial tension if one comes off too strongly in trying to impose on the rest of the family such sweeping changes.

But back to the so-called low hanging fruit of plastic pollution, specifically, the plastic straw.  As I wrote above, I don't use them.   Problem is, as I have begun to notice, is that many restaurants have a policy where they automatically put a straw in your drink before they bring it to you.  This happened at one of my family's favorite restaurants, Hama Sushi in Plainview.  When we dined there last month, we all told the server that we wanted water, and to my annoyance, she brought us our water with straws already in our glasses.  By some accounts, approximately 500 million plastic straws are used and discarded in the United States every day.  How is this not insane?

I decided to make Hama Sushi my first test case for activism.  What if I could get the restaurant to change its policy on straws from automatically giving them to customers to giving straws only to customers who specifically ask for them?  So I wrote and mailed a letter to the restaurant making the case for adopting such a policy, citing the win-win scenario of less plastic waste and lower costs for the restaurant if they didn't have to order so many straws.  Several weeks went by without a reply, but tonight my daughter told me she wanted to eat there for dinner for her birthday.  Remembering what happened the last time we were there, I specifically told our server not to put straws in our drinks.  However, I couldn't help but notice that every other customer in the restaurant who ordered water or soda had it brought to them with a straw already in the glass.

After we had finished eating, I approached a lady who works there with whom we were acquainted from our years of dining there.  Having once been a server there, she appears to have been promoted to a managerial position at the restaurant.  I referenced to her the letter I had written and we discussed the issue for several minutes.  She explained to me that it was the restaurant's previous policy not to automatically provide straws to customers.  According to her though, some 95% of the people dining there would ask for a straw.   Servers would then have to walk over to the bar and grab the straws and bring them to their customers, which during busy times in the restaurant was considered a distraction.  Consequently, the restaurant decided it was simply more efficient from a time-saving perspective to put straws in the drinks automatically.  The lady agreed that it would save the restaurant money if so many patrons didn't insist on having straws with their drinks.  I found it sad that the dynamics of the restaurant business meant that the onus falls on the customer to request to not be provided with a straw.

Some of you reading this might be thinking, "Wouldn't it be easier for servers to simply carry the straws on them so that they (a) didn't have to automatically put straws in beverage glasses and (b) if a customer requested a straw, they wouldn't have to walk back to the bar to get one?"  To my astonishment, a law or regulation was enacted at some point that forbids restaurant servers from carrying straws on them.  I don't know if it is a Nassau County or New York State law and will have to look into this to learn more.  It was mentioned to me by a server at the Plainview Bareburger, where I had lunch several weeks ago.  Unlike other restaurants, like Hama Sushi, the server at Bareburger would put straws still in their wrappers on her customers tables, leaving it up to the customer to decide to use them, which they invariably did.  I chatted with her about the restaurant's straw policy and she was the one who mentioned to me that it was against the law for servers to have straws in their pockets. 

What we have, sadly, is a situation where so many people have been programmed to use straws when drinking a beverage at restaurants.  Last week I took my kids to eat at the Noodles & Company at the Broadway Mall in Hicksville.  Noodles has a self service beverage area.  The person who rings you up provides you with a paper cup and then you go to the beverage area and choose the drink you want.  The lids and straws are also located there.  Of course, my children and I did not take lids and straws.  What I couldn't help but notice though was that just about every other customer in the restaurant, regardless of age, put lids on their cups and poked straws through the holes in their lids.  I couldn't help but wonder, why were they doing this?   Why does a middle aged man need to use a straw to drink his soda? 

Even more frustrating is that even telling the server you don't want a straw is no guarantee that you won't get one anyway.  This happened last month at a Cheesecake Factory in Nyack, where my son and I ate lunch with some of the other parents and players from his travel ice hockey team.  I told the server not to put a straw in my iced tea, but sure enough when she brought us our drinks, my glass had a straw in it.  When I pointed out to her that I specifically requested not to be provided with a straw, she said she would go back and get me one without a straw.  I had to point out to her that the damage was already done and to just give it to me as is. 

The ubiquitous plastic straw is a symptom of a larger problem, which is the extent that the vast majority of humanity thinks nothing about using disposable plastic items for a few minutes and then seeing them become part of the waste stream, a good deal of which ends up in our oceans, for basically forever.  Proposals to ban or tax single use plastic bags is seen as infringing on some God-given right.  Plastic straws are reflexively associated with consuming beverages without a moment's thought on the consumer about why it is even viewed as necessary to do so.  Even buying something as small as a pack of gum at a CVS will often see the register clerk robotically start to put it in a plastic bag.  Sometimes even telling the register clerk right off the bat that I do not need a plastic bag will result in them replying "Are you sure?" 

Occasionally though, interactions with servers and register clerks result in what some would call teachable moments.  A few nights ago I took my daughter to Burgerfi.  We intended to have ice cream shakes, so I brought with us our metal, reusable straws.  I explained to the register clerk to make sure not to put straws in our shakes, as we had our own, which I showed to her.  She seemed astonished and asked me where I had gotten them from.  I told her I had ordered them on  If interested, you can order your own set from them here!

There are two ways that significant progress can be achieved in greatly reducing our use of single use plastic items.  One is the spreading of awareness of the problem and convincing enough people to make a concerted effort to change their habits with regard to single use disposable plastic.  The other is through legislative action that bans or puts costs on the use of such items.  Both approaches have their drawbacks.  Getting enough people to change their consumer choices to the extent that it has a noticeable impact on the marketplace runs up against general human inertia and our addiction to convenience.  Legislative solutions inevitably run into opposition, as the plastics industry will frame the issue as an attack on capitalism, jobs and freedom of choice.

The Hama Sushi experience was a sobering reality check for me about the difficulty that lies ahead if I want to become an activist in reducing single use plastic waste.  But I will make a pitch to each and every one of you who reads this.  Can you pledge to be one less plastic straw?  One less plastic bottle?  One less plastic bag?  If just one of you can do that, then I will feel my efforts are not in vain.

Plastic Pollution and a Sobering Reality