As the fight against ocean-polluting plastic intensifies, Alaska Airlines has pledged to fly free of plastic straws.
The move will likely only reduce a tiny percentage of plastic used each day—and an even smaller percentage of the plastic that makes its way into the ocean—but advocates and researchers say the airline's move could be an important step in raising awareness among consumers and possibly push an industry reliant on single-use plastics toward more sustainable materials.
Alaska's announcement last week comes amid a growing movement to reduce the use of plastics, 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of which flow into the ocean, where it breaks down into small pieces and is consumed by fish and affects marine life from Arctic seabirds to tropical coral reefs. The European Commission recently proposed banning single-use plastic in European Union nations when a sustainable alternative is available. The California legislature, meanwhile, is considering several bills that would reduce plastic pollution.
Over the past year, a particularly achievable target for that campaign has emerged: plastic straws, most of which aren't recyclable and tend to blow and float away into rivers, streams, beaches, and, eventually, the ocean.
With that push continuing to gain steam, some companies have declined to "stop sucking." A majority of McDonald's shareholders, for instance, rejected a resolution that would have required the global fast food giant to assess "the business risks associated with its continued use of plastic straws, and the company's efforts to develop and implement substitutes for plastic straws in its restaurants."
But 1,800 restaurants, schools, and other institutions have stopped using plastic straws, according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition's "the Last Plastic Straw" campaign. A ban on single-use plastic straws and cutlery takes effect July 1st in Seattle. And Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii, meanwhile, have banned plastic polystyrene take-out containers, and the rest of the state may soon follow.
Alaska becomes the first airline to join that movement.
The airline does not use drinking straws like the ones found in McDonald's sodas, but it does put plastic stirring straws in cocktails and coffee, as well as hand out plastic citrus picks. Starting July 16th, those will be replaced by white birch stirring sticks and bamboo citrus picks. For customers with special needs, a different biodegradable option will be available upon request, said Shaunta Hyde, managing director of community relations at Alaska Airlines. (She wouldn't identify Alaska Airlines' current straw suppliers or whether the airline will switch to new ones.)
Jacqueline Drumheller, Alaska's sustainability manager, said the airline had decided last fall that it was eventually going to go strawless, following what she called a "groundswell of awareness" in recent years.
The epicenter of that groundswell may well be Seattle, the airline's headquarters. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and other local celebrities have appeared in videos urging people to "stop sucking." And at Alaska's largest hub, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, 25 restaurants and vendors have stopped offering plastic straws and will provide biodegradable paper ones upon request.
Alaska also received a letter from a Girl Scout asking the airline to eliminate plastic straws and reduce plastic pollution. "So there were a lot of seeds—that were starting to get watered," Drumheller said.
More water came when Lonely Whale—the ocean advocacy group co-founded by actor and activist Adrian Grenier that is behind the "stop sucking" and "Strawless in Seattle" campaigns—approached Alaska Airlines.
Lonely Whale's executive director, Dune Ives, said she has been an Alaska mileage member since 1984 and flies the airline almost exclusively. On those flights, she said, "it was hard not to notice the single-use plastic items that can't be recycled." So after starting the Seattle campaign, she reached out to the airline, which had significantly expanded its routes after its acquisition of Virgin America.
"Our first conversation with them was, 'We want you to know we're doing this straw campaign in Seattle and, by the way, Sea-Tac (airport) is joining and going straw-free, so it feels like there might be something we could be doing together here,'" Ives said.
That was earlier this spring. "From start to finish, it was one of the shortest turnarounds we've seen with any company," she said.
Alaska took time to make sure employees were on board with the change, Ives said, noting that every company has different concerns. Some think customers will revolt if there isn't a straw in their cocktail, some worry about the costs of switching to a new product or the logistics of lining up a supplier that can provide the volume of products needed.
"It's funny because the straw is so simple, on the one hand—and yet it's really interesting how challenging it can be to transition from single-use plastic straws," Ives said.
Alaska says it used 22 million stir straws and picks last year. That would be a tiny fraction of the plastic that enter the oceans each year. It's also likely a small proportion of the total amount of other plastic waste produced by air travel—bottles, headphones, wrappers, cups, cutlery, and trays.
And unlike, say, the straw in a Starbucks Frappuccino that spills out of a trash bin on the street or the cellophane wrapper that blows away, the volume of airline straws and picks that leak into the outside environment is likely minuscule.
"In the robust waste system of the United States and airports, this would happen mostly by accident—it is hard for people to litter to the outside world from airplanes, for example," said Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Georgia who tracks marine plastic pollution.
Besides waste disposal cost savings, Jambeck said the biggest impact from Alaska's new policy would likely be raising passengers' awareness of single-use plastics.
"The airline sets an example by doing this," she said. "So people get used to not using a stirrer—at least on a plane. And they may think twice about it in a different environment, or at least become more thoughtful about it."
That's Lonely Whale's goal.
Ives said "any switch airlines make is going to have a pretty significant impact," simply due to the sheer volume of passengers, each one of whom receives some sort of single-use plastic item. "Most importantly, they're engaging their customers now. We're influencing the hearts and minds of people."
Ives said she hasn't spoken with other airlines about ditching plastic straws, but that other groups have. The calculations might be different for each company—it might be harder for some to secure reliable supplies of non-plastic replacement products depending on where their hubs are located, she suggested. Alaska made a lot of sense because of its close ties to the soon-to-be-straw-free Seattle area. "Everyone is kind of in a different place, depending on where their headquarters are," she said.
But she sees the move as a "real sign there is a cultural shift happening."
"We're very excited to see what kind of conversation this sparks," Ives said. "Everything starts with straws."