The Last Straw: Scapegoating the Consumer

By Katy Greco, Deputy Editor of GLOBUS

We’ve all heard the statistics. 8 million tons in our oceans per year. Hundreds of thousands (and by some estimates, millions) of marine animals and seabirds  injured and killed annually. Within 30 years there will be more of it than there are fish in the sea. Plastic waste is undoubtedly public enemy number one when it comes to protecting the world’s marine ecosystems. A large part of the fight against oceanic plastic pollution has been targeted towards single-use consumer items – and with good reason. Plastic bags are often consumed by turtles who mistake them for jellyfish, which can suffocate them or fill their stomachs causing them to starve; birds and fish swallow plastic utensils which puncture their stomachs resulting in internal bleeding (and ultimately death); and microplastics from items like straws and toothpaste are not only poisoning fish, but also potentially the humans who eat those fish too.  

And the campaign against single-use plastics has been brilliant to watch unfold. From the tentative early steps such as the introduction of the carrier bag charge in 2015, to the monumental ban on single-use straws, cotton buds, and drink stirrers in 2020, which makes selling and supplying these single-use plastics punishable by fine, the progress is undeniably a win for the environment.  

But this isn’t the whole story.  

In the US alone, 500 million plastic straws are used every day, and estimates of how many are polluting our coastlines range from 437 million to 8.3 billion. But the reality is that straws only make up 0.025% of oceanic plastic pollution. This seems odd, right? If straws are only a fraction – nay, a fraction of a fraction – of the problem, then why have they been front and centre of the campaign against oceanic plastic pollution? The answer: Misdirection. If big industry can blame the whole problem on single-use consumer items, then the everyday environmentalist can be placated with paper straws and reusable bags and the question of commercial accountability can go ignored. It’s greenwashing and moral licensing – as if making superficial tiny green changes permits companies to continue their environmentally negligent (and potentially criminal) practices. Don’t get me wrong – single-use plastics are having an awful impact on the environment, and any steps to reduce them can only be a good thing, but eliminating plastic straws is not enough to save our marine ecosystems. The truth is that while the poster child of the campaign against ocean plastic –the dreaded plastic straw ­­– makes up 0.025% of all oceanic plastic pollution, commercial fishing gear alone accounts for 46% of the “great Pacific garbage patch”. But where’s the campaign against littering fishing nets? McDonald’s have switched to paper straws, but I highly doubt they’ll be ditching fish from the menu anytime soon.  

So yes, single-use consumer items are harmful, but the biggest threat to marine life is in fact blatantly obvious – fishing. Fishing kills fish. But not in the way we think we understand; the fishing industry isn’t just killing the animals that end up on your plate. The problem is that fishing gear (such as trawlers and longlines) are designed to catch and kill, but it can’t discriminate between tuna and turtles. This is known as ‘bycatch’, or ‘incidental hooking’, and it’s essentially when non-targeted marine life is accidently caught by indiscriminate fishing nets and lines. And the scale of the problem is staggering. 7.3 million tons of non-targeted marine animals are caught as bycatch per year. “Non-targeted” animals make up 40% of all global catch – that’s literally trillions of fish. For every 1kg of shrimp caught in shrimping trawlers, anywhere between 3-15 times that amount of bycatch is killed. A quarter of a million turtles die every year in the US as bycatch. Globally, 50 million sharks and 650,000 marine mammals (that includes dolphins, whales, and sealions) are unintentionally killed by indiscriminate fishing. The statistics go on.  

And bycatch isn’t the only aspect of the fishing industry that’s destroying marine life. Another major problem is dumped fishing gear. As I mentioned earlier, almost half of the great Pacific garbage patch consists of discarded fishing nets, but the issue extends far beyond that. According to Greenpeace, 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is dumped into the ocean every year. And this essentially leads to bycatch without any of the actual catch – a phenomenon known as ‘ghost fishing’. Ghost gear makes up 10% of ALL oceanic plastic, but makes up 70% of the ocean’s macroplastics (plastic bigger than 20cm – that’s the type of plastic responsible for the entanglement, stomach-puncturing, and nostril-stabbing that many campaigns blame on plastic straws and other single-use consumer items). And it’s not just marine life that ghost fishing harms – it’s also economically damaging to fishers as ghost gear essentially catches and kills fish before they can be actually fished (as Greenpeace puts it, fishers are essentially competing against ghost gear).  

So, the reality is that while banning plastic straws and other single-use plastics is definitely a good thing, it’s small potatoes compared to the effects of fishing gear. Cutting down on straws is easy and something most of us can do (although it should be noted that straws are important for some children, people with disabilities, and people with other illnesses) – but how can we, the everyday people, change the fishing industry? Well one obvious way to save the fish is to stop eating them. If the demand for fish decreases, then so will fishing, and thus so will the amount of bycatch and ghost gear. Another way is to not be complacent. It’s amazing to see so many people cutting down on single-use plastics but it’s also important that, in addition to quitting straws, we must continue to pressure the fishing industry to be transparent (for example, how do we know how “dolphin safe” our tuna really is?), boycott companies who use destructive fishing practices, and ultimately hold big business accountable for their role in oceanic pollution.  

Header image by Artem Beliaikin via Unsplash 

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