The last straw

A few weeks ago, a video of an olive ridley sea turtle in Costa Rica went viral. It wasn’t because the turtle was doing something cute or gif-worthy. It was because a plastic straw had got embedded into one of its nostrils and the turtle looked like it was having trouble breathing. It’s a hard video to watch – the scientists hover around the turtle to try and wiggle the straw out for ten whole minutes. At one point, blood starts to stream from the nostril, while the turtle looks miserable. There’s palpable relief as the ten-centimetre long wedged straw is finally pried out by the scientists. It’s one of the most horrible things to see, and most people I know couldn’t bear to watch the video. Even the mere mention of it makes everyone shudder.

A piece of straw is an innocuous thing. It’s itty-bitty and almost invisible. And the straw is just kind of there, bobbing about in your drink. Say, you are at a restaurant and your child wants fresh lime soda or watermelon juice (oh surely, you don’t mean cola), while you order cocktails, straws it seems, have become a must-have. In fact, it’s almost like that annoying practice, where the staff asks you – bottled water or filter water. The correct answer, as anyone with an iota of brain cell, knows is filter water. Yet, it’s a question that is responsible for tons of plastic being added to landfills and oceans.

And when it comes to straws, there’s an array to choose from – in fact, the fancier the better. There are the plain plastic straws, then the L-shaped ones, and then the bendy ones in all sorts of fun colours and shapes. Suck a bit, and it’s exciting to see your beverage of choice go up and down like a roller coaster. Wheeee! And for a child, it can seem like the coolest thing ever. Plus, the gurgling sound they can make at the end of a drink. Bonus points for that!

But what happens after you are done chugging the beverage? That piece of plastic goes into the bin. If you are at the beach and having coconut water, the chain is even more clear. The straw goes into the water. To bob along with marine life.

One of the saddest pictures I saw on Instagram was of a Yellow Goby fish who was living in a makeshift home inside an abandoned soda can. The photo was taken by Brian Skerry. The caption by National Geographic further explained that one estimate cites “5.25 trillion pieces of plastic [are] currently circulating with the ocean”. I don’t even know how to quantify this figure in my head.

There are ways to be less of a sucker though. And they are less difficult than having a turtle gag on a piece of straw and try to regurgitate the plastic through its nose. It’s simply explaining the restaurant staff, for instance, that you want a drink without a straw. Nine out of ten times they will still bring the drink with a straw. Like the other day, when we were at a restaurant and ordered lassi. The drink came in solid steel tumblers, but with straws! Who drinks lassi with straw? Why? How? It’s supposed to be thick enough to eat with a spoon. But no, straw we must. If your building recycles, then take the offending plastic piece home and put it in the right bin.

Most importantly, explain to your children why a straw is really a useless accessory. Kids are sensitive, and they care about animals and pollution. They will end up taking the lead in this drive.

Once you get started, it’s kind of hard to stop. Refuse disposable cutlery and accessories when ordering food. Most delivery services have horrendous amounts of Styrofoam, plastic, and foil in their packaging. I have a colleague who managed to convince her food delivery service to switch to steel dabbas. It didn’t even take time.

Of course, it would be great if restaurants make the use of straws optional. I am sure there are tricky customers who demand a straw. But perhaps it’s easier to explain why you are not offering a straw. Or like the bottled water versus filtered water question, this too can become part of your staff’s vocabulary. Feel free to rephrase the question but here’s an example – “Would you like that juice without straw? Or would you prefer a straw and cause permanent damage to our oceans and marine life with your choice.”

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