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One Man's Meat

Saturday, 12 August 2017 | MYT 12:00 AM

Let this be the very last straw

Old habits may die hard but it is possible to change and it is worth it, for the sake of the environment. 

AT a swanky restaurant in Petaling Jaya, I ordered a bottle of sparkling water. A 500ml bottle of Pellegrino and a glass filled with ice and a plastic straw arrived at my table.

I saw the plastic straw and I felt guilty.

Again, I had forgotten to tell the server not to include a plastic straw with my drink order.

The plastic straw is a waste.

I don’t even use it. I take it out of the glass and put it on the table. And I drink straight from the glass.

Repeat that every day.

For example, I ordered iced Chinese tea in a coffee shop. It arrived with a plastic straw.

Sigh! I had forgotten to tell the server not to include a plastic straw. And I felt guilty.

I blame my colleague Victoria Brown for making me feel guilty about the plastic straw that will end up in a rubbish bin, unused. Last month, I read her Behind The Cage column in The Star on “Saying no to plastic straws”.

What hit me were these facts in her column.

“Many people are unaware that it takes up to 200 years for a single plastic straw to break down. This means that the first plastic straw that was introduced in the 1960s still exists somewhere on Earth,” wrote Victoria, a 20-something journalist who writes passionately on environmental and animal rights issues in her column.

I was not aware that the innocuous plastic straw took 200 years to break down. Two hundred years!

Victoria hypothesised: “Imagine if every person uses one straw every day in Malaysia. That is 30 million straws used per day, or close to 11 billion straws a year, and this number is in Malaysia alone!”

After reading her article, I vowed to tell servers not to include a straw with my drink order. But I always forget to do so.

I forget because I have not made it a habit to tell a server not to include a plastic straw. I want to change that habit.

Many Malaysians too, unconsciously, use plastic straws unnecessarily. Think for a moment: do you really need to use a plastic straw to drink? Do you actually use the straw to drink?

They can change that habit. And habits can be changed.

I’ve seen this happen.

In the 1980s, it was common to see coffee shops with “Don’t spit” signs on their walls. It is rare to see the sign nowadays, unless you patronise coffee shops in small-town Malaysia.

You also no longer see people spitting in coffee shops.

I’m not sure how the change happened. Did the “Don’t Spit” sign help to change that disgusting habit? Or did RTM broadcast a “Don’t Spit” campaign on radio and TV? I don’t know.

Victoria wrote her piece after coming across a local campaign called “Tak Nak Straw”, which is spreading awareness on the detrimental effects of the single-use plastic straw.

The campaign converted her to say no to plastic straws as the first step in reducing her plastic usage. Now, she carries a pack of reusable stainless steel straws.

When I grow up, I don’t think I can be like Victoria.

I don’t think I want to carry a stainless steel straw together with my battery juicer, USB, Type C cables and Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 tablet in my backpack. Plus, being a jantan (man), I don’t need a straw to drink my drink.

Even now when I go grocery shopping, I don’t bring reusable bags, even though it costs me 20 sen to buy a plastic bag. I don’t feel guilty buying a plastic bag.

I don’t know why I don’t feel guilty using a plastic bag to carry my groceries but I feel guilty when I’m served a plastic straw with my drink order.

Maybe it is because at least the plastic bag has several uses. To carry my groceries and to be recycled as a garbage bag.

Note to self: a plastic bag is everlasting trash. It takes 20 to 1,000 years for it to decompose.

Once I did remember to tell a barista not to include a plastic straw for my “take away” ice coffee order. I took photographs of the plastic cup containing my iced coffee and Instagrammed it. My caption was: “I ordered without a straw because I want to save the world.”

It was my occasional PSA (public service announcement) on social media. I also wanted to see if anyone saw the irony in my photograph.

Someone saw it and commented sarcastically, but with taste: “Thank god you are using a plastic cup...can save the world. Lol!”

I replied: “The irony” and added a laugh emoji.

I don’t want to pretend that I am such an environmentalist. But what I was hoping to do was just to raise a bit of awareness on social media that we might be ordering a drink that comes with an innocuous plastic straw that we might not even need or use.

Caring for the environment can start with a straw (that broke the environmentalist’s back).