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Straw Man, or the Last Straw?

— July 2, 2018

Will banning the humble yet minimally useful plastic straw save the planet? No, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do.

In between episodes of outrage at children being kept in cages, seemingly unconstitutional checkpoints in the 100-mile border zone, and proposed abortion bans in anticipation of a conservative Supreme Court majority, there’s been another slow-burning concern in certain circles: plastic waste. With vast swirls of plastic trash clogging our oceans and choking wildlife, there’s less excuse than ever to continue manufacturing and consuming single use plastic items. Public ire at plastic pollution around the world has, for now, coalesced on the drinking straw as the latest must-hate disposable nuisance.

The successor to the single-use plastic grocery bag in terms of moral disapproval and efforts to ban its use, the drinking straw is slowly disappearing, and not a moment too soon. In 2015, a National Geographic article told the sad story of a 77 pound male sea turtle found in Costa Rica with a straw lodged in his nostril. Scientists spent nearly ten minutes prying the four-inch straw out of the turtle’s nose. (If you have a strong stomach for empathetically painful images, you can watch the video here.) Perhaps the plight of this poor reptile set the stage for the next environmental trend.

While there’s less traction for environmental issues in Trump’s America, other, more hip countries (and the world’s fifth largest economy, California, which may as well be a country) and some businesses are hopping on the straw ban bandwagon. Deliveroo, a British-based food delivery service, recently rolled out an opt-in for plastic cutlery and handed out 100,000 cornstarch based straws as part of an effort to reduce plastic packaging, while Alaska Airlines aims to phase out plastic stirring straws starting in July. Britain, Scotland, Chile, India and Taiwan plan to phase out single use plastic in the next ten years.

Lonely Whale, the environmental organization that spurred the “Strawless in Seattle” campaign that will take effect on July 1st, introduced the initiative with the hope that straws would start a larger conversation and serve as a gateway to reducing other single use plastics. The humble straw is more useful as a symbol of all the unnecessary, ubiquitous plastic use in our consumer culture. We use it for a few moments and then throw it away, where we immediately forget about it but it will be with us forever in some form or another. As a recent Vox article explains, the ban will hopefully result in a more mindful attitude towards other plastics. After all, a few years into Ireland’s plastic bag tax, single-use plastic grocery bags became socially unacceptable.

A notice posted in a casual restaurant tells customers not to expect a straw unless they request one.
A casual restaurant in southeastern Michigan is reducing plastic waste by only providing straws at customer request. Photo by the author.

Of course, the strategy could backfire. After California’s Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon (D) introduced legislation to bar dine-in restaurants from providing a straw unless the customer asks for one, Travis Allen, a Republican running for California governor, tweeted his disapproval. “Is there any part of your life that Democrats don’t want to control? As Governor, this is exactly the type of legislation that I will VETO.” I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether the GOP-led abortion ban bill in Ohio is somehow less invasive of citizens’ personal lives than a Californian disposable straw ban.

There’s also the danger that people will avoid using straws and feel that their job is done. The Alaska Airlines effort, in particular, reeks of slacktivism, since substituting a sliver of birch for a sliver of plastic is a thin green veneer when air travel itself has an outsized impact on the climate, and not even environmental activists are doing much about it.

We’ve long left behind the time when such minor changes to our personal habits could have fixed the planet, and the scars left by industrial culture will be felt for thousands of years to come (especially when it comes to nuclear waste). However, that doesn’t mean such small actions are meaningless to the human psyche. It’s still righteous to do the moral thing, even if we know the battle is already lost.

Related: How Green Are Those New Cassava Bags?


Why everyone is shunning plastic straws
Going green: Alaska Airlines says ‘so long’ to non-recyclable plastic stir straws
Straws. Bottle caps. Polyester. These are the new targets of California’s environmental movement
How Did Sea Turtle Get a Straw Up Its Nose?
Marine plastic: Hundreds of fragments in dead seabirds
To fly or not to fly? The environmental cost of air travel
Deliveroo dishes out ‘opt-in’ feature for plastic cutlery in Singapore

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