The last straw


August 14, 2018

If my Google Alerts this past month are any indication, it looks as though Americans have finally been able to put differences aside and cross party lines to unite against a common enemy—the plastic straw.

Earlier in July, Seattle became the first major city to ban plastic straws along with plastic utensils in bars and restaurants. San Francisco followed suit later in the month. Smaller cities like Malibu and San Luis Obispo, California, and Miami Beach and Fort Myers, Florida, have similar initiatives underway. Then came the news about corporations like Starbucks, Disney, American Airlines and Aramark—all of which have plans in place to crack down on the use of plastic straws in the name of environmental stewardship.

Environmentalists have condemned single-use plastics for years, citing its nonbiodegradable composition and the difficulty it poses to recyclers as a major source of the world’s pollution. Items like straws get used once, and then are sent to landfill or end up as pollution, commonly finding a home in the world’s oceans where they can break down and pose health threats to wildlife.

According to the Earth Day Network, more than 500 million plastic straws are used every day in the U.S.—enough to circle the globe twice. Since 91 percent of plastic waste isn’t recycled, the bulk of these discarded straws is likely to join the millions of tons of plastic waste that is created annually.

While the straw ban is being billed as a way to fight back against this excess, even the most ambitious estimates dictate that a widespread ban would be just a drop in the bucket of the total amount of plastic pollution generated annually in this country.

According to the Plastics Ban List produced by the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Berkeley, California, straws and stirrers make up only 8 percent of environmental plastic pollution. Conversely, the biggest sources of environmental plastic pollution are food wrappers and containers (31 percent), bottle/container caps (16 percent) and plastic bags (11 percent).

Dune Ives, the executive director of Lonely Whale, an organization in New York City that helped spearhead the straw ban in Seattle, noted in an interview with Vox that the purpose of the straw ban is not really about the straws themselves, but about starting a larger dialog about how we use, and dispose of, many of the products we consume every day.

“Our straw campaign is not really about straws,” Ives said in the interview. “It’s about pointing out how prevalent single-use plastics are in our lives—putting up a mirror to hold us accountable. We’ve all been asleep at the wheel.”

Whether the banning of straws in major corporations and cities throughout the country becomes part of a larger movement, or it is simply an expedient way to generate easy public relations or political good karma, it is a step in the right direction. And progress—no matter how incremental—is never a bad thing.