18 September 2013

Just say no!

Katja Rockstroh – PA to the Head of Education at the Two Oceans Aquarium

With International Coastal Clean-Up Day approaching (21 September 2013), I thought it is time to tell you about the item that I cannot stand and that I can definitely live without. This particular item had not bothered me much before, it was in my life on random occasions and I did not spare a second thought about what its impact is on the environment.

All this changed, however, during International Coastal Clean-Up Day a year ago. So many of these items were found, that I had a personal epiphany that there is no point to this thing … a thing that is really just there to do a job that humans have done themselves since the dawn of time. And besides that, it is made of plastic, it does not biodegrade and more often than not, marine and terrestrial animals end up swallowing or choking on it.

Perhaps you have already guessed the identity of this thing. If not, let me introduce you to the DRINKING STRAW.

The drinking straw – a huge contributor to beach litter. Photo by Helen Lockhart

Straws, as we know them today, have been around for a surprisingly long time. The first evidence of a drinking straw was found in a Sumerian tomb dating back 6 000 years. Archaeologists have also found a straw made out of gold in what used to be Babylonia. Until 1888, people who had a specific inclination to use straws used some that were made of rye grass. The problem with this was that the straw would disintegrate before the drinker finished their beverage, resulting in a dissolved rye mash in the drink. Needless to say, this could not be lived with and a gentleman by the name of Marvin Stone came up with the first paraffin-coated paper straw (the paraffin coating prevented the straw from dissolving).

Due to the success of this product, the Stone Company produced its first straw winding machine in 1906. The straw saga continued in 1937 when Joseph Friedman, apparently after watching his little daughter struggle to drink her milkshake, invented the bendy straw by inserting a nail into a normal paper straw. The plastic straw that we have now has been around since the 1960s, and is made out of very durable polypropylene.

Just think: all plastic straws that have ever been made are still on the planet somewhere. Having said that, so are all single-use diapers.

Back to one year ago! In 2012, almost 10 000 people volunteered at the International Coastal Clean-Up Day in the Western Cape and more than 25 tons of rubbish were collected from our beaches and waterways. Straws came in second, making up 16% of all the rubbish collected. This statistic shocked me into never using a straw again.

I have become the irritating person in my family and among my friends, who gives a lecture about straws every time one of them dares to use one. It pains me every time I get a drink and it automatically has a straw in it which has already been removed from its packaging, which means it was opened in vain as I will not use it. This reminds me to always say “No straw, please” when I order my drink. Yes, I am that person. But in all honesty, we do not NEED straws.

However, there are alternatives to plastic drinking straws if you really need to use one. Because I do acknowledge that drinking a milkshake when you are 5 years old without a straw can get complicated. Glass straws have become increasingly popular, as well as metal ones and can be washed and reused endlessly. Paper straws have also come back, which is great since you could just bury them in your garden after use.

So what I would like to achieve with this blog is to make people aware that drinking straws pose a serious environmental threat to marine and terrestrial wildlife. But more importantly, I hope people realise that drinking straws are not essential for our survival and that you can say no and not take one at a restaurant or shop. If you say no, they will not end up on our beaches or in a river and will not add to all of the already alarming piles of rubbish. This would mean that they do not become the number one item to be picked up at this year’s International Coastal Clean-Up Day (fingers crossed).

So just say no, because straws suck. And should you feel like doing something outdoorsy this Saturday, which will also benefit the environment, please join me at the Two Oceans Aquarium’s Coastal Clean-Up event. Hope to see you there!

Two Oceans Aquarium International Coastal Clean-Up Day

Where: Strandfontein beach (meet at parking lot next to the pavilion)
When: 21 September 2013
Time: 10h00 to 12h00

We will supply you with bags, gloves and data collection sheets. Bring your own water and sunscreen/hat.

See photos from the 2011 Clean-up, the 2012 Clean-up, and read more about this year’s planned Clean-up.

Stay in touch: for daily Aquarium updates, follow us on Twitter (@2OceansAquarium) and become a fan on Facebook.

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