'Stop Sucking' for the environment!

In the US alone, half a billion plastic straws are used every day, environmentalists say. Many of those end up in our oceans. Now there's an initiative to #StopSucking - you can still enjoy your cocktail without a straw.

Too much "sucking" on a website is suspicious - particularly to web filters trying to protect viewers from offensive material.

Nature and Environment | 13.07.2017

"Caution: This profile may include potentially sensitive content," appears on a warning page you get redirected to when you want to enter @LonelyWhale's Twitter channel. "Do you still want to view it?"

But the Lonely Whale Foundation has a perfectly wholesome goal: to reduce the amount of single-use plastic straws.

"We bleed 10 million tons of plastic into the ocean every single year," says Adrian Grenier, co-founder of Lonely Whale. "And plastic straws are just a small fraction of that - but it's a great place to start."

Nature and Environment | 05.10.2017

The Stop Sucking initiative (campaigning under its Twitter hashtag #StopSucking) points out that people in the United States alone use 500 million plastic straws every day.

Make it a habit

"We all suck because we don't do enough for the oceans - and we all suck on single use plastic straws every single day, an average of two per person per day."

At the EU-hosted Our Ocean Conference in Malta this week, Adrian Grenier introduced the #StopSucking initiative, and even got participants in the room stand up and pledge to not use any more plastic straws.

Audios and videos on the topic

"We're asking people to just make one small change and make it part of their habit," Grenier says.

Just like someone orders a soft drink possibly adding "no ice please," or a coffee "without milk and sugar, please," Grenier and his fellow activists are urging people ordering a drink to include the request "no straw, please."

Lonely Whale isn't the only initiative to tackle this environmental issue.

The Last Straw is campaigning to end the use of plastic straws around Australia, and the initiative 'Last Plastic Straw'in the US has picked the examples of straws to educate the public about the absurdity of single-use plastic in general.

How it all began

Environmentalists point out that plastic straws are "totally unnecessary."

Not everyone, though, might be happy to let a dear habit go. This is perhaps even more the case because the human habit of using a straw is thousands of years old - historians date the use of drinking straws back to the third millenium B.C.

Sumerians in Mesopotamia allegedly used straws to drink beer.

"In drinking unfiltered beer, a straw would have been necessary to penetrate below a layer of hulls and yeast floating on the surface," write historian Mary Voigt and anthropologist Solomon Katz.

Of course, people didn't have plastic back then - drinking straws were made mostly from reeds.

Researchers also found straws made of pure gold - apparently how the wealthy enjoyed a drink in ancient times.

In the 1800s, drinking become fashionable, allegly invented by a resident of Washington, DC, when drinking a mint julep cocktail.

Of course, they were made out of paper back then. In the 1960s and 70s, plastic took over the world.

Fighting the plastic flood

Tons of trash

At least 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the world's oceans every year, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The report warns plastic trash will outweigh fish by 2050 unless drastic action is taken. Much of the floating trash collects in several large ocean vortices far from land. Beaches, like this one on Midway Island in the remote Pacific Ocean, also suffer.

Fighting the plastic flood

Addicted to plastic

The floating plastic isn't just an eyesore: as it breaks down into smaller pieces, marine animals mistake it for food. A recent study by Uppsala University showed ingesting plastic can have devastating effects on fish, including stunted growth and increased mortality rates. Surprisingly, some fish even seem to prefer plastic. Plastic in fish is also suspected of posing health risks for humans.

Fighting the plastic flood

Edible alternatives

The Ocean Conservancy estimates more than 690 species of marine animals have been affected by plastic pollution. In an effort to reduce the impact of all that waste, some companies have come up with alternatives. The Delray Beach craft brewery, in Florida, has developed edible six-pack rings from wheat and barley left over from the brewing process. It hopes to begin production in October.

Fighting the plastic flood

Biodegradable packaging

As an alternative to single-use plastic packaging - which makes up a significant portion of the waste found in oceans - some companies have come up with biodegradable alternatives. At a plant in Poland, wheat bran is being used. According to inventor Jerzy Wysocki, the Biotrem packaging can be used in the oven or freezer, and will decompose in 30 days - or can simply be eaten. Extra fiber!

Fighting the plastic flood

Bamboo to the rescue?

Fast-growing bamboo is also an alternative to plastic - used to make everything from toothbrushes, shower curtains, utensils and even computer parts. Work at the Tonggu Jiangqiao Bamboo & Wood Industry Company, pictured here, started mass production of bamboo keyboards, mice and monitor casings in 2008.

Fighting the plastic flood

Ocean skimmer

Alternatives may help reduce waste, but millions of tons of plastic still float around the world's oceans - and will remain for centuries, slowly breaking down. Dutch foundation Ocean Cleanup aims to collect the trash with a 100-kilometer (60-mile) floating dam system that is supposed to trap plastic waste without harming fish and other sea creatures. It aims to install one in the Pacific by 2020.

Fighting the plastic flood

From trash to fashion

Some of that plastic could be recycled and reused in other forms, becoming flower pots, home insulation or - in the case of Spanish firm Ecoalf - clothing. The Madrid-based clothing line takes plastic waste collected by 200 fishing boats in the Mediterranean, crushes it into flakes, and then creates polyester fibers - which in turn become fashionable jackets, backpacks and other items.

Fighting the plastic flood

Reduce, recycle ... and reuse

Plastic waste can also be reused in its original form. At the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio +20 in 2012 - 20 years after the first World Oceans Day - giant fish made from plastic bottles were exhibited along the waterfront in Rio de Janeiro.

There are alternatives

Beer is filtered today, so any actual need to use a straw has long passed.

But even today, there might indeed be situations in which a drinking straw becomes necessary - for example, before on-screen or stage appearances after perfectly applied makeup.

No problem at all, Lonely Whale clarifies on its website: "We're not anti-straw, we're anti single-use plastics."

They point out marine-friendly alternatives, such as multiple-use straws made from metal or glass, as well as single-use paper straws.

In Cambodia, a young environmental activist even developed a biodegradable bamboo straw.

Strawless in Seattle

At the Our Ocean Conference in Malta, Adrian Grenier points out that his campaign "is about having a small, accessible, measurable effect on the world. It's not about doing everything at once."

Last September, the Lonely Whale Foundation set off to reduce single-use plastic straw use in Seattle.

In a city-wide campaign, they convinced hundreds of restaurants and bars, as well as two sports stadiums, to eliminate drinking straws completely - or to switch to paper straws, at the very least.

Altogether, the action eliminated 2 million straws - "just as the bare estimate, and that's every month - forever," Grenier says.

"We are looking to reach 60 million by the end of the year in Seattle alone."

In the end, #StopSucking is just one example how to "change our lifestyles and to change our perceptions of [...] how we want to live," Grenier says.

Compared with other sacrifices environmentalist may call for, #StopSucking seems to be a lifestyle change that might indeed not hurt too much.

A castle made from plastic bottles

Plastic fortress

This strange building rises up like a medieval castle from the tropical vegetation on Isla Colon, the main island of Bocas del Toro province in Panama. Around 40,000 recycled bottles made from the plastic PET went into its construction. Its aim? To raise awareness about the problem of plastic waste.

A castle made from plastic bottles

A threat to our oceans

On the facade and within the building are artworks illustrating how the world's oceans are being polluted. Only a small part of the globe's more than 300 million tons of plastic produced annually is recycled, according to the Future Ocean research group. Much of it lands in the sea, with between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons ending up there in 2010.

A castle made from plastic bottles

Robert's dream

Robert Bezeau, from Canada, actually wanted to retire when he came to Bocas del Toro nine years ago. But when he voluntarily took part in an enquiry run by the island's authorities analyzing waste production, he turned into a campaigner against plastic rubbish. "If every one of the currently 7.3 billion people on the planet only drinks one bottle, that's 2.66 trillion bottles per year," he said.

A castle made from plastic bottles

Caribbean paradise

Year after year, hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers come to the archipelago, mostly from the United States and Canada. Next to bohemian bars and restaurants, the islands offer an abundance of nature, such as mangroves, warm, clean waters and beautiful beaches. But that brings with it more waste, which often ends up in the sea because of the area's inadequate rubbish disposal capacity.

A castle made from plastic bottles

One man's trash...

Around 1.5 million plastic bottles build up each year on the small 62-square-kilometer island alone. Robert Bezeau collects them and saves them for his building projects. Only the typical drink bottles made from PET can be used - other kinds contain too much oil and would therefore be too flammable.

A castle made from plastic bottles

Plastic and iron

The plastic bottles are stacked inside cages made of reinforced steel and wire to make walls before being coated in a layer of cement. Each component can fit 300 half-liter or 120 1.5 liter PET bottles. Only particular sections, like the medieval-style triangular windows, don't follow this pattern.

A castle made from plastic bottles

Building up knowledge

This kind of construction is particularly suitable for simple bungalows, which require some 14,000 bottles. Bezeau wants to build a training center to teach people in emerging economies how to use plastic bottles as low-cost construction materials. One key advantage, he says, is that the air inside the bottles can shield against the heat.

A castle made from plastic bottles

An information resort

The plastic fortress is still being built. When it's finished later this year, it's set to become a holiday resort where tourists can learn about the plastic waste problem. Founder Bezeau wants to put the income generated by the resort back into training. He's hoping that, just like in other parts of the world where waste is unavoidable, rubbish can at least be used for a meaningful purpose.

oneOcean.fm conducted the interview with Adrian Grenier

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