CHICAGO — On Monday, Starbucks announced plans to remove plastic straws from its more than 28,000 stores. And if several environmental groups have their way, Chicago could be next to ban plastic straws all together.
Every year, an estimated 22 million pounds of plastic debris makes its way into the Great Lakes from the United States and Canada, according to a 2016 study.
Across the nation, environmentalists have focused their attention on straws as a way of reducing that debris. Before Starbucks, Seattle became the first major city to ban plastic straws and utensils earlier this month.
Abe Scarr, state director of Illinois Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit public interest group, said organizations are coming together to figure out how to move a straw ban forward in Illinois.
“We have all the evidence we need to know that single-use plastics are harming our environment,” Scarr said.
“We have a plastic crisis. There are viable alternatives and there is really no reason we should continue using these single-use plastics like straws, plastic bags or polystyrene containers. We don’t think any of it is justified.”
Illinois Public Interest Research Group, Environment Illinois, Illinois Environmental Council, Sierra Club and the Shedd Aquarium are among the organizations and institutions looking to drive the conversation forward.
Two years ago, the Shedd Aquarium began a campaign dubbed “Shedd the Straw” aimed at reducing the use the single-use plastic across the city and the greater Chicagoland area.
Andrea Densham, senior director of policy and advocacy at Shedd Aquarium, said the campaign has aimed to educate and “encourage the public, local government, businesses like restaurants, hotels and venues to reduce straw use and harm to aquatic life.”
Densham and other environmental groups see straws as one piece of a larger issue, but said early efforts have been focused on getting businesses and people to voluntarily reduce their use of straws.
“Our encouragement to restaurants is to only give straws upon request and when they do provide them, have the straws be compostable,” Densham said.
Earlier this year, the Shedd Aquarium partnered with White Sox and their concession partners to reduce the number of straws used at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Densham emphasized education has been key to informing the general public about the harm caused by single-use plastics on aquatic life. She credits researchers with providing a clearer picture of the “devastation” caused by the accumulation of plastic waste both in the Great Lakes and oceans.
Plastic pollution found in Lake Michigan is “approximately the equivalent of 100 Olympic-sized pools full of plastic bottles,” according to researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
“We have been finding year after year after year, plastic has been accumulating and the danger for our aquatic worlds has been growing…We have been seeing [plastic] show up in the stomachs of shore birds and other creatures,” Densham said.
In addition to the harm plastic pollution poses to aquatic life, Densham said that accumulation of plastic waste is finding its way into our drinking water.
“The Great Lakes is a source of drinking water for 40 million people, and we in Chicagoland get our drinking water from Lake Michigan,” Densham said.
“One of the big problems with plastic is they degrade, and when they degrade they create micro plastic that is showing up in drinking water,” Densham added.
The best way to protect the ecosystem and our drinking water is to reduce the use of single-use plastics, she said.
Illinois Environmental Council Executive Director Jennifer Walling said the time to have a discussion with stakeholders in the city about reducing plastic litter in Chicago is now.
While no legislation has been drafted for the state, Walling said they are looking at what other cities have done and are working with disability advocates about how to provide an exemption for people living with disabilities who need plastic straws.
Walling compares this effort to previous campaigns like the plastic bag tax and the ban on microbeads healthcare products —which Illinois was the first state to ban in 2014.
“Shedd the Straw has been working with some very important businesses in order to take voluntary action,” Walling said. “Eventually, we are going to get past the point of early voluntary adopters … and we have to figure out a way to get the folks who just won’t do it.”
Walling, Densham and Scarr acknowledged that banning straws won’t solve plastic pollution in our waterways, but it is one piece of a larger fight that is necessary to reduce plastic waste.
“Nothing that we use for five minutes should be in our environment for 500 years,” Scarr said.
Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, a statewide nonprofit group that promotes and protects restaurant interests, said the group support restaurants’ efforts to voluntarily decrease their environmental footprint. But leaders pushing for a ban should consider several factors, he said.
“Any proposed regulations on plastic straws should be fully cognizant of customer requests, drive-thru areas, the medical necessity of straws, and other considerations,” Toia said in a statement.