Plastic Beaches: An Interview with Harriet Spark
By: Emma Coyle
Plastic straws can take over 500 years to decompose and they fill as much as seventy percent of the stomachs of seabirds and turtles, increasing their mortality rate to as much as fifty percent. Now that it is July, and the height of summer has arrived, shorelines have become part of everyone’s consciousness. Both the beautiful and the horrifying. Living by the coast is often a summertime luxury. The breeze comes off the water and the sun shines down; people take a moment away from their normal lives. Musée Magazine had the opportunity to speak to Harriet Spark, the co-founder of Operation Straw, about plastic straws, underwater photography, and how she found her way into running an organization focused on cleaning up shorelines. Organizations like Operation Straw are advocating for their elimination from public consumption but there is some backlash from both disabled activists and plastic manufacturers.
Musée: Plastic straws have been in the news a lot recently; proposed bans, corporations deciding to cut back on straw use, and a certain amount of backlash. It's also the focus of your organization. So, why plastic straws?
Harriet Spark: We chose to focus on plastic straws because they were something we routinely found time and time again when snorkeling at a local dive site, so we picked them because they are a problem in our local area. We wanted to raise awareness of how a seemingly insignificant item can impact the local underwater world.
Musée: How did operation straw get started?
HS: A friend and I regularly snorkel at a dive site in Sydney, Australia called Manly Cove. Here we found hundreds of plastic straws every time we jumped in for a snorkel. Often, after just twenty minutes, we'd return with more than 200 plastic straws. I wanted to see how many we could collect over a consistent period of time, and use this data to raise awareness in the wider community, and that's how Operation Straw was born. Every weekend last summer, we went STRAWkling (snorkelling for straws) with a group of volunteers to collect and count the straws we were finding in Manly Cove.
Beaches are considered a typical part of the summer. And they are always pictured as pristine white sand and clear blue water. With Starbucks deciding to move away from plastic straws, images of suffering sea-life and cluttered, plastic-filled beaches have become more frequent on social and mainstream media. How does the idealized summer vacation become filled with these disorienting and upsetting images?
Musée: You feature quite a few photographs of plastic pollution on your website. How did you come across those images? Are they natural scenes that you stumbled over while working to remove them?
HS: Everything we've taken photos of is what we've come across while STRAWkling. On one STRAWkle we even found an octopus waving plastic straws in its tentacles. It's always so devastating to see marine life interacting with items that should never have made their way into their homes.
Musée: Are the photographs the work of volunteers or professional photographers?
HS: All photographs are voluntarily taken by my partner (@theunderwaterwoody) or myself (@grumpyturtledesign). We're both dive instructors and love underwater photography, we'd spend all day underwater if it was possible! We've found that capturing the images of what we've found has enabled us to have a big impact, so much so that it inspired me to study videography. I've just finished my first short film piece that focuses on another favourite local dive site, that's also a marine sanctuary.
Many disabled individuals need straws in their daily lives and by limiting their availability there is the potential that their quality of life would be lowered. Disabled people who need straws everyday would be responsible for carrying an additional item everywhere they go, and if they forget to bring a straw then they will not be able to consume water which is essential for survival. Nonetheless, general limitation of straws could possibly make beaches and bodies of waters a safer and cleaner place for their natural populations. It is a hard balance to find.
Musée: What do you do with the straws after they are collected?
HS: We’re working on an underwater sculpture with them! Straws are not recyclable so we've had to get creative with what we'll do with them.
Musée: Were you expecting plastic straws to be as controversial as they have become?
HS: They’re getting a lot of attention at the moment. Whilst I understand this can be frustrating because there are other elements of plastic pollution that are more threatening to the marine environment, it's good to see businesses moving away from using items like plastic straws. For businesses, removing straws from their operations should be the first step towards reducing the amount of plastic they use, but not the only step.
The beach is such a large part of the way summertime fills the minds of children on break from school, their parents enjoying the warm weather, and people who are looking for a change of scenery. It is well-timed to be paying attention to the way that these shorelines are treated. If there is no change to human behavior then at some point vacation destinations will become unrecognizable and the tourist industry will suffer for it.
Musée: Do you think a ban would be effective?
HS: A huge amount of plastic is making its way to our ocean every year, and globally, so much more needs to be done to stop plastic at the source. A plastic straw ban that's inclusive, and caters to the needs of those that need to use plastic straws, would be one small step towards beginning to reduce the amount of plastic we are using.
Musée: Disabled rights activists are saying that straw bans are not inclusive. How do you feel about that and do you have a suggestion for how to best serve the needs of the whole community while also limiting plastic pollution?
HS: I completely understand that for some people it's necessary to use a plastic straw, and it's essential that any action be it legislative or voluntary, considers everyones needs. However, the majority of people who are using plastic straws are not using them because they need to and this is why they're such a big problem. Billions are used around the world every year. If you do not have a disability, you don't need to use a plastic straw and if you do want to use a straw, there are plastic-free alternatives available. For those that need plastic straws, one option is for venues who have stopped serving plastic straws to keep some on-hand for members of the community that need to use these.
In the past, attempts to outlaw or restrict the use of plastic, like plastic bags, have been faced with a lot of adversity and have had limited effect in both implementation and environmental conservation. Ultimately, would the banning of plastic straws stop the amount of plastic pollution seen in the oceans and along shorelines? Probably not. Plastic straws only make up approximately four percent of plastic waste pollution. The most effective solution would be a governmental or national change to the way that plastics are regulated and disposed of in the country, instead of placing the burden on individuals to make the oceans cleaner. Nonetheless, Operation Straw is fighting this uphill battle and making a difference, one straw at a time.