Starbucks is the largest food and beverage company so far that has announced it will eliminate plastic straws from its stores, and Illinois environmental groups think that public opinion — not legislation — is the best way to manage the issue of plastics pollution.

“The power of the people speaking out encourages industry to make changes,” said Jennifer Caddick, vice president of communications and engagement at the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

In January, the Alliance, together with the Shedd Aquarium and the Illinois Environmental Council, issued a joint resolution recognizing the implementation of a federal law banning plastic micro-beads from personal-care products. Even before the federal law, manufacturers had begun to voluntarily remove the micro-beads from products, Caddick said. That could also work for plastic straws.

Chicago's Lake Michigan waterfront. | AP photo

Chicago’s Lake Michigan waterfront. | AP photo

The issue of plastic pollution is particularly serious because Chicago and other communities throughout  the Great Lakes draw drinking water from the freshwater lakes, Caddick said. Most of the plastic pollution in the Great Lakes is caused by cities along the lakes or rivers that flow into them, unlike the oceans, where plastic pollutants can be carried from thousands of miles away.

Over 8 million tons of plastics end up in the world’s oceans every year. The United Nations Environment Programme reported in 2018 the United States was the world’s largest generator of plastics per person.

A study published in 2017 calculated that human industries have produced more than 9.1 billion tons of plastics since 1950 and 5.5 billion tons wasn’t recycled or destroyed, meaning it ended up in landfills or oceans. If plastic pollution continues at the present rate, the U.N.E.P. warns, the oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050.

The Aquarium Conservation Partnership, which the Shedd Aquarium helped found, estimated that 22 million pounds of plastic enter the Great Lakes every year. Some of that ends up along the lake shorelines.

More than 85 percent of the trash picked up by volunteers in the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Adopt-a-Beach program is either made of plastic or includes plastic components.

Some plastics, such as the polypropylene commonly used in plastic straws, don’t deteriorate in the environment and can exist for centuries. Instead, they’re broken down into smaller and smaller pieces over time, ending up as microplastics floating in rivers, lakes and oceans. The microplastics are sometimes ingested by fish and birds, which can kill them. Because the plastics can’t be digested, they can end up staying in the animals’ bodies and eventually make it into our food supply.

Plastic debris is strewn on the beach on Henderson Island an uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. | Associated Press Archives

Plastic debris is strewn on the beach on Henderson Island an uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. | Associated Press Archives

But microplastics are smaller than 5 mm in size, so they’re not that easy to see — and that’s a challenge for persuading people that plastic pollution is a problem.

“I think there’s that powerful imagery of plastics in the ocean,” Caddick said, “But we don’t have that in the Great Lakes because it’s so small.”

Despite this, the Alliance for Great Lakes is encouraging the public to sign up for its Plastic-Free Great Lakes Pledge, which asks signers to refuse single-use plastics like the straws that Starbucks has announced it will eliminate.

The same no-straws pledge is part of the Shedd Aquarium’s “Shedd the Straw” campaign, launched on Earth Day in 2017. While Starbucks hasn’t contacted Shedd Aquarium to formally join their campaign, the aquarium is excited by the size of the company’s commitment, said Jaclyn Wegner, director of conservation action at the Shedd Aquarium.

There are now over 125 restaurants that have pledged to eliminate the use of plastic straws as partners in the Shedd the Straw campaign, according to Wegner. The Shedd Aqaurium keeps a list of restaurants that have made the commitment.

“We’ve mainly been working with local restauants over the last year and half,” Wegner said.

A campaign poster by the Shedd Aquarium lists three reasons to stop using plastic straws. | SHEDD AQUARIUM

In April, as part of the Shedd the Straw campaign, the White Sox announced Guaranteed Rate Field would no longer give away plastic straws with drinks.

They made a deep dive to make that change, Wegner said, working with their concessions partners and staff to eliminate plastic straws from Guaranteed Rate Field and offer biodegradable paper straws instead.

Wegner said she hopes other venues, including the Cubs’ Wrigley Field, will also make that change. She also said she hopes McDonald’s Corp. — which moved into a new West Loop headquarters in June — will make the same commitment. The fast-food company announced last month it would test “sustainable” straws in the United States as it switches to paper straws in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

“A lot of people know about plastic pollution in the oceans,” Wegner said. “But plastic pollution is a problem here as well.”

Cities worldwide have all begun to take steps to control the issue of plastic pollution. Last week, Starbucks’ home city of Seattle banned single-use plastic straws and utensils. San Franciso and New York are considering proposals.

A dead bird rests on a table next to a plastic straw and pieces of a red balloon found inside of it on North Stradbroke Island, off the coast of Brisbane, Australia. (CSIRO via AP)

A dead bird rests on a table next to a plastic straw and pieces of a red balloon found inside of it on North Stradbroke Island, off the coast of Brisbane, Australia. (CSIRO via AP)

Wegner said she’s not sure if a ban is right for Chicago. “It’s not as much having a rule against straws as it is about changing our daily habits to reduce our use of plastics,” she said.

Both Caddick and Wegner welcomed the move by Starbucks, but cautioned that it isn’t going to solve all environmental problems. Drinking straws account for a tiny fraction of the world’s plastic pollutants.

In addition to ditching single-use plastic straws and using reusable bags when shopping, Wegner said it’s things like stirrers and bottles that people should consider eliminating from our day-to-day lives.

“Shedd Aquarium is especially concerned with these issues because we care about the wildlife in our area, especially in the Great Lakes,” Wegner said. “We want to connect people in Chicago to this problem. The fish and birds are affected by plastic pollution, and we hope that Chicago will work to be part of the solution.”