PD Editorial: A reusable straw and a recycling crisis

Miles Pepper's invention - a reusable, stainless steel drinking straw - is a clever idea.

It's also a timely idea, and not only because disposable straws, like plastic bags and bottle caps, are a source of waste plastic that threatens marine life in the world's oceans and waterways.

“At best, plastic straws end up in the landfill,” Pepper, a 23-year-old Analy High School graduate now living in Los Angeles, told Staff Writer Hannah Beausang. “Because they're so lightweight, they sometimes end up in gutters and out to the ocean as trash, where they're mistaken by sea critters, fish and turtles as food.”

If we don't change our habits, there could be more plastic, by weight, in the ocean than fish by 2050, according to a widely cited World Economic Forum report. Synthetic microfibers also have turned up in drinking water samples around the world, according to news reports.

The best-case scenario for disposable straws - the landfill - has its own problem: space is finite, and no one wants a new landfill in their neighborhood.

Which leads to another, more immediate concern: the world market for recyclables is drying up.

Americans recycle about 66 million tons of material annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But more and more of the plastic soda bottles, cereal boxes, newspapers, magazines, restaurant takeout containers and empty cans that fill up those big blue barrels are ending up in landfills or stacking up in warehouses instead of being refashioned into recycled products.

Recyclable waste tends to be exported, and the most common destination has been China.

But, as part of an antipollution campaign, China announced last year that it didn't want “foreign garbage” anymore. Scrap exports to China dropped 35 percent in the first two months of 2018, the New York Times reported recently. Then, in May, China temporarily halted all imports of recyclable material and warned that it would impose permanent restrictions by the end of the year.

Some countries, Vietnam and Indonesia among them, still accept recyclables. But none of those markets comes close to matching China, which handled as much as half of the world's exports of waste paper and other recyclable material, including about 8 million tons a year shipped from the United States.

Unless the Chinese reconsider, or a new option emerges, the handling of recyclables could develop into a worldwide crisis.

You've probably seen this slogan: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. It's a commendable ethic. It feels good. And it helps extend the life of landfills. But sending shiploads of trash across oceans was never a sustainable approach to waste management.

That brings us back to Miles Pepper and his reusable straw.

Plastic straws aren't recyclable, of course. But millions of straws are used every day. For some people with disabilities, straws are essential. For most of us, however, they aren't a necessity. They may be fun. They may spare you from a milk mustache. But they're used briefly and then they're discarded - like excessive packaging that facilitates shipment and retail display before adding to the waste stream.

Recycling remains the best alternative to landfills, so keep sorting those plastics and bottles. But the long-term goal needs to be less waste.

Until then, it's going to take a lot of innovations like Pepper's FinalStraw to make a dent in the mountain of garbage that people discard every day.

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