Plastic straw bans are not saving any turtles and Tik Tok isn’t helping

Isabel Ames

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This summer I hopped on the Tik Tok bandwagon and downloaded the app. Instead of getting featured on the “For You” page, I had a disheartening realization: current plastic bans, in addition to being ineffective, are now being utilized for humorous content. 

Tik Tok is a social media app used to create and share short lip-sync, comedy and talent videos. Among many trends I witnessed, one of the most frequent trends made fun of plastic straw bans. In a popular rendition, “VSCO girls” are the subject of ridicule for their desire to “save the turtles,” which they accomplish by using reusable water bottles and metal straws. The label “VSCO girl” is derived from the photo editing/social media app VSCO, which teenage girls have dominated with photos of their Jeeps, Hydroflasks, and metal straws. Other variations of the joke are more explicit, such as capturing the intentional littering of straws or imitating marine life strangled in plastic just to spite the ban.

Illustration by Isabel Ames

The Tik Tok app has over 500 million active users, two-thirds of which are between the ages of 16 to 24 years old, according to Mediakix. This means that Tik Tok represents this generation in its content, the same generation who will soon be responsible for the future of this planet. The abundance of Tik Tok creators who scoff at plastic straw bans are a simultaneous distraction from a solution to plastic pollution. If you connect the dots, you can see how a speedy solution to plastic pollution is not probable. We, the Gen-Z cohort, are headed in the wrong direction. 

California’s ban on plastic straws was originally administered in Jan. 2019 in an effort to reduce the amount of runaway plastic pollution in our oceans. Viral images and videos of marine life being strangled or killed by these plastics helped supercharge ban campaigns, according to the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Since then, restaurants have stopped serving straws in drinks and stores have replaced plastic for paper straws. 

Despite how much I support a solution to plastic pollution, some of these comedy videos are representative of a situation. First, why do we need a plastic straw ban? If the goal is to significantly reduce pollution from runaway plastics, you might think restrictions on the fishing industry would be a priority. Abandoned fishing nets are the largest polluters of the world’s oceans, contributing to 46 percent of the total plastic waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, according to NBC. In comparison, plastic straws make up a mere .03 percent of total plastic waste by mass, Vox reports. The trend is mirrored on our beaches, where the top pollutants are cigarette filters, food wrappers and plastic beverage bottles. Of the top ten most common pollutants of beaches, plastic straws came in seventh, NBC reports.

Companies’ support following plastic straw ban enactments have also proven ineffective. For example, Starbucks has pledged to completely remove plastic straws from its 25,085 locations stores worldwide by 2020. Ironically, their execution idea is to engineer straw-less lids, which “are going to be made of even more plastic than the straws,” Dianna Cohen, CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition stated in an article with NBC. Coca-Cola made a pledge to increase the percentage of recycled plastic used in their bottles. Gatorade has begun to create thinner plastic beverage bottles. As encouraging as this news seems, Coca-Cola has only increased its use of recycled plastic by seven percent and thin plastic has virtually the same impact as thick plastic bottles, according to NBC.

These Tik Tok comedians are somewhat right: the plastic straw ban is not effective. But, that’s not the point. NBC reports the ban was really intended to act as a first step in a lineup of other bans on plastics, rather than to significantly reduce runaway plastic pollution on its own. If future bans are in the running, how can they prove successful when the generation they depend on is not on board? As reported by NBC, an estimated 90.5 percent of all plastic waste never gets recycled, which means we, as a nation and planet, still have a long way to go before this issue can be resolved. To increase the effectiveness of plastic straw bans and curb anti-ban sentiment, more bans on plastic should be administered and a reinforced emphasis on the importance of plastic reduction is essential. These bans should restrict the plastic with a larger footprint in the world’s oceans, such as abandoned fishing nets. 

 It seems like a no-brainer to want a cleaner, healthier planet, but as of now we are headed in the opposite direction.