There are times when one small thing can really make a positive difference.
This new trend toward banning plastic straws is not one of those times.
Starbucks announced last week that it will begin phasing out plastic straws by 2020, something they say will eliminate more than 1 billion straws per year. Seattle and Vancouver have both banned plastic straws, and New York and San Francisco are considering it.
The idea is that banning straws and not giving them out will reduce plastic pollution, especially in the ocean. An oft-quoted figure from Eco-Cycle claims that Americans use 500 million straws a day, and 9 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year.
However, the special lid Starbucks is giving out instead uses more plastic, something Starbucks defends by saying the lids are fully recyclable while straws are not. So the people who are pointing out that people are tossing their straws and cups into the ocean seem to be expecting the same people to carefully recycle cup lids, which seems unlikely.
I hate to break it to you, but we’re not saving the ocean by banning plastic straws in the U.S. I can understand the urge. I’d love to be able to ban one small thing and call it good, but it’s not going to work.
For one thing, that 500 million statistic I mentioned earlier is way off. It’s been spread far and wide, but it actually came from one phone survey conducted by a 9-year-old in 2011. Market research firms put it at 170 million to 390 million. At most, reported the Associated Press in April, straws account for 0.02 percent of all plastic waste.
According to experts quoted in the June 2018 National Geographic, if we’re going to fix plastic pollution in the ocean, we need to help poor coastal countries find a way to deal with their trash. Waste management systems may not be as snappy as banning straws, but they’re far more effective in cutting down on littering.
The good news there is that we’re pretty good at it. A 2015 study published in “Science,” the U.S. contributed less than 1 percent of marine plastics. China contributes 28 percent.
Not that we’re the best by any means. We can definitely up our game when it comes to getting plastic recycled and not dumped in the landfill. National Geographic also confirms I was right to be skeptical about how many of Starbucks’ new plastic lids will be recycled. The magazine says less than a fifth of all plastic in the world gets recycled and in the U.S. it’s less than 10 percent. But at least we appear to be better at not dropping it in the ocean.
So we’re not going to fix littering or get rid of garbage island by banning straws. But we might be hurting some marginalized people.
Alice Wong, the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, wrote an eye-opening article for Eater.com Thursday, explaining how straw bans affect people with disabilities. In it, she explains that she always asks for drinks with a lid and a plastic straw for a simple reason: She doesn’t have the hand and arm strength to lift a drink and tip it into her mouth, and compostable straws, like the paper ones people are suggesting as alternatives, melt or break apart before she can drink her drink.
She also pushed back against suggestions that she bring reusable straws, and not for the reason I would — reusable straws are hard to clean and the idea of the germs in there grosses me out.
“Why would a disabled customer have to bring something in order to drink while non-disabled people have the convenience and ability to use what is provided for free? This is neither just, equitable nor hospitable,” Wong wrote.
All of this is not to say I’m for everyone using all the straws and leaving them willy-nilly all over the place. I’m all for everyone doing what they can to reduce the amount of waste and plastic we leave behind.
But banning them is certainly going too far, particularly when it comes with harsh penalties to restaurants that give them out (I’m looking at you, Santa Barbara, Calif., which authorized $1,000 fines for violators and doesn’t even have an automatic exemption for people with disabilities).
Personally, I’m favor of Wong’s solution.
She suggested establishments have both paper and plastic straws available for people to choose from. “If a cafe or restaurant wants to provide straws by request, have the server offer plastic and biodegradable versions, just as they would give any customer a choice of still or sparkling water. Customers can choose what is best for them without alienating an entire group,” she wrote.
Simply saying “Would you like a straw?” will cut down on plastic usage, and definitely plastic waste.
I like Starbucks’ other ideas for becoming more sustainable, too. Encouraging people to bring their own tumblers and considering an extra charge for people who ask for paper cups to help push toward reusable ones seems like a good direction.
If the government wants to help out, it should figure out ways to get people to recycle and offer to help other countries get good garbage systems up and running, not charge people $1,000 for using a straw.