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 August 14, 2018
Will cutting back on plastic straws really make a difference?

 With more than 8 million tons of plastic trash entering the oceans every year, according to advocacy group Plastic Oceans Foundation, do straws really matter?

That's a question many of us have been asking recently. Last month, Starbucks became the latest company to ditch conventional plastic straws, joining several major hotel chains and airlines in pledging to cut out single-use straws. Austin-area restaurants and other businesses have been quick to pick up on the idea. More than three dozen establishments have said they aren't going to give out single-use straws anymore, but, with respect for people who rely on straws, almost all have said they would continue to offer a straw option by request.

Austinite Linda Ritzen emailed me a few weeks about how she ditched straws. "I don't drink sodas, but I do drink iced coffee, water and the rare shake or smoothie that seems to require a straw," she says.

She grew up using paper straws and didn't love how they dissolved as you used them. Instead of using paper or newer alternatives like glass or metal straws, she has switched to sipping from the cup. "I thought it would be difficult to give up plastic straws, but I've done just that, for the most part, and I'm not missing them," she says. "I'm finding that I drink more slowly, especially when there's ice involved."

Because she's not gulping through a straw, Ritzen says she's often choosing a smaller drink size and still feeling satisfied, a change that would be helpful if she were trying to reduce calorie intake from beverages.

More than a handful of people in my office use reusable straws, either ones that they keep in their bags or that come with those reusable cups that have a screw-top lid.

But straws aren't the only plastic items we use when eating on the go. Our online news editor, Gabby Muñoz, has a drawer full of reusable products, including a GoBites Uno Spork from REI that has a spoon on one side and a fork on the other, and a Baggu bag, which folds up and fits nicely in her purse.

Despite their buzz online, some reusable products, including metal or glass straws, are still hard to find in retail stores. Even EcoWise, the green building store that is now located at 209 E. Ben White Blvd., is phasing out some of its consumer products because people are buying them on the web, but the store carries some Bee's Wrap (a reusable food wrap option) and other plastic alternatives for the kitchen and home.

Faraday's Kitchen Store and Whole Foods both carry metal straws and the tiny brushes used to clean them, and Central Market has a selection of Trudeau reusable food containers that last longer than your typical see-through plastic containers. To find some brands, such as LunchSkins' reusable bags, you might have to order them online.

Plastic Oceans, which wants to change how people think about plastic, says we need to stop associating plastic with the word "disposable." You can recycle some kinds of plastics, but even compostable plastics, which have to be separated in the recycling stream, don't break down as easily as you might think.

But back to the original question: Will reducing our plastic waste one straw or plastic lunch baggie at a time really do anything?

Some scientists have said that the push to ban plastic straws is a distraction from the real issue: industrial waste through the production of everything we use and consume. The production of computers, cars, clothes and furniture requires huge amounts of single-use plastics and equally detrimental microfibers, and it's hard to imagine a grocery store without any packaging at all. Even as the buzz around reusable packaging grows, Austin's first low-waste food store, Ingredients, closed earlier this year.

Scientists including marine biologist David Gruber have said that we need a Manhattan Project for plastics, "an initiative that drives people to invent similar materials that aren't harmful to life in the ocean." He told TED.com earlier this summer, "If we're smart enough as a species to put a lander on Mars, why can't we invent good replacements for plastic?"

Because few of us are qualified to develop the next alternative to plastic, reducing our individual consumption and waste is the only way that many of us feel like we can make a difference, even if it's a small as one of those tiny pieces of plastic washing up on a beach this very moment.