Do you ever wonder what happens to a plastic drinking straw after you are finished using it and throw it away? Where is “away”? Where does it end up?

The answer depends on where in the world you live. In some places, the straw is probably buried in a landfill, or burned to produce energy in a power plant. In other parts of the world where there may not be enough garbage cans, or garbage trucks, or places to safely contain this trash, the plastic straw might end up in a river, or on a beach, or in the ocean.

An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans each year. That’s enough plastic trash to line the entire coastline of the world with a stack of 5 plastic grocery bags chock-full with plastic garbage. What happens to this plastic?

Most of the plastic packaging that we use breaks down into floating fragments, smaller than your pinky fingernail, that collect in vast regions of the oceans often referred to as “garbage patches”. These are not giant landfills, or plastic islands made of trash, but instead consist of millions of tiny pieces carried by ocean surface currents to dead-end collection zones in the oceans.

Marine animals as small as plankton and as large as whales can eat these small plastic bits, and so can the fish and shellfish that we enjoy as seafood. We’re not sure what effect the plastic has on the animals, or if there is any harm to humans who eat them, but surely you wouldn’t choose to eat plastic for dinner!

The best way to stop this plastic pollution is simply to use less plastic. Skip the straw. Choose reusable containers and bags instead of those designed to be thrown away after one use. Recycle when you can. And teach your friends and family about this pollution problem that we can all help solve by making small changes in our daily lives.