It is difficult to believe that something so slight and ephemeral as a plastic straw would be worthy of a coordinated campaign to abolish it, and yet the effort to ban straws offers up a powerful case in point as to how small actions can lead to big consequences.

This past spring, a handful of Cape towns considered bans on plastic straws, a ubiquitous, if unfortunate, part of any community where restaurants rule. Straws, however, have the dubious distinction of being one of the most common pieces of plastic trash in the world, with the lion’s share of the hundreds of million that are used each year escaping recycling efforts. In many cases, in fact, used straws end up in the oceans, polluting our waters and posing a real hazard to the plants and animals that call those habitats home.

Last year, the documentary “A Plastic Ocean” brought cinematic attention to an issue that has concerned scientists for decades, namely that humans have for far too long been treating the world’s oceans as an extended dumping ground and that this careless approach has begun to yield disastrous results. Among the many disturbing points made in the movie is that every year, eight million tons of plastic end up in the oceans. Perhaps even more unsettling is the fact that much of the plastic we produce is used for the briefest of times. By one account, approximately 150 million tons of plastic – half of the total amount produced every year – is for applications that are used for 15 minutes or less. To wit, straws.

This plastic waste poses a host of problems for sea life. Some of it is ingested by marine creatures simply because it looks like something that they typically eat. For larger animals, it just ends up consumed because it happens to be near something else. Perhaps most insidious, however, is when the plastic breaks down into smaller particles. These micro-plastics slowly build up in fish and other seagoing creatures, and can easily find their way into our food chain.

An even more confounding element is the fact that there are many environmentally friendly alternatives available for most of these items. When it comes to straws, for example, the wax-coated paper version was around for a long time before the petroleum-based model made its first appearance, but today plastic straws dominate the $3 billion global straw market. Glass and metal options, although attractive in terms of longevity, are expensive and therefore do not function very well with our disposable culture, and restaurants might have a difficult time convincing patrons to treat them as they would cutlery rather than, say, napkins. Some have touted the value of plant-based biodegradable straws, but many restaurant owners complain that these, too, are cost prohibitive, given the volume necessary to keep pace with daily demand.

For these reasons and others, some have proposed outright bans on straws, except for individuals whose physical challenges require that they use them. Indeed, several American cities and towns have already implemented such prohibitions. In addition, lawmakers in countries such as Canada and England have considered nationwide straw bans, although none has been imposed. Still, some restaurants, both local and global – most notably McDonald’s – have pledged that they will phase out using plastic straws.

Plastic straw supporters note that the popular small cylinders account for a relatively small fraction of overall plastic waste. Similarly, others argue that products such as one-use plastic bottles represent an even larger use of nonrenewable resources. Still, every effort, no matter how small, can make a difference, and small efforts sometimes have a way of growing into a higher degree of awareness. Consider how plastic bag bans started quietly, and that today about two-thirds of Cape towns have some sort of ban on non-reusable plastic bags.

So the next time you go to a restaurant, pass on the straw, and perhaps let the manager know that, as a customer, you wish that they would stop using them. Passing laws is one thing, but when consumers start voting with their wallets, that’s when real change happens.