Plastic Straw Environmentalism

Michael Quiroz

Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

It all began in 2011, when 9-year-old Milo Cress began his “Be Straw Free” campaign. Since then, everyone from Tom Brady to Theresa May has brought single-use plastic straws into conversation, whether through simple advocacy or tangible legislation. As of 2019, more than a dozen cities have issued plastic straw bans, including Washington D.C., Seattle, Miami Beach, and, come July, San Francisco. Outside the policy sphere, multinational corporations are taking steps to reduce or entirely eliminate plastic straws: McDonalds is banning plastic straws in it’s restaurants in the UK and in Ireland, while Starbucks and Alaskan Airlines are planning to completely phase them out.

The movement to eliminate single-use plastic straws appears to be an area of growing success for grassroots organization and consumer “purchasing power” – but we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back just yet. Due to the ease of which most people can do without them, it has been easy to rally public support for the banning of plastic straws, and though this has certainly helped to draw attention to plastic pollution, the fixation on a single product has drawn our focus away from the larger issues in plastic waste management that need to be addressed.  I think this “plastic straw environmentalism” is a good example of the collective tendency to focus on individual easy-fixes rather than the systemic issues behind them, and presents a crucial barrier we must overcome to address this and other environmental issues. Let’s take a look at how plastic straw environmentalism has played out over the past few years.

By the numbers

In the United States alone, consumers use and toss about 500 million straws in a single day. Around 7.5 million plastic straws litter our coastlines, which seems like a big deal, right? Here’s the thing: eight million tons of plastic escape our collection systems and flow into the ocean every year, and straws only comprise .025% of that.

So, who are the biggest offenders when it comes to plastic pollution? According to The Plastic Ban List:

  • Food wrappers and containers account for 31.14% of plastic waste
  • Bottles and container caps account for 22.77%
  • Bags account for around 11%
  • A combination of straws, utensils, balloons, and several other items make up the remainder.

All in all, plastic straws make up such a tiny fraction of global plastic pollution that even if all cities and corporations banned their use – which doesn’t seem likely in the near future – it wouldn’t be enough to curtail our plastic problem.

Corporate greenwashing?

Setting aside the quantitative realities of plastic straws, let’s examine the corporate world’s response to their growing spotlight. Starbucks recently announced a plan to phase out plastic straws by 2020. The only problem? They’re replacing straws with plastic lids. Their blog claims the lids are “more sustainable and more socially responsible” and triumphantly designate the decision an “environmental milestone.” While it’s true that the polypropylene content of the lid is more easily recycled than the previous straws, it’s still a single use plastic item, and in lieu of China’s National Sword policy, the U.S. lacks the infrastructure to properly recycle most of its plastic waste in the first place. In similar fashion, McDonalds announced that they were doing their part to support “industry-wide change” by phasing out plastic straws, but they only have plans to do so in their restaurants in the UK and Ireland – a small fraction of the huge franchise.

The approach of these two companies does not define the corporate response to plastic pollution, but it certainly illustrates the potential for greenwashing. When it comes to phasing out plastic straws, corporations are quick to tout their plans, but can be slow or inadvertently unsustainable in their implementation. Furthermore, by highlighting their work on this single issue, Starbucks and McDonalds draw our attention away from the nuanced ways they harm the environment all throughout their production process. Here, the public focus on a single item promoted a half-hearted and ineffective response in corporate sustainability, rather than the comprehensive company-wide reduction in plastic items and packaging that would be needed from all corporations in order address plastic pollution.

Low Hanging Fruit, but a good first meal

Despite these critiques, the plastic straw movement has certainly shown that consumer demand can and will impact the habits of corporations and legislation – the only question is whether these institutions will continue to respond when solutions are less convenient than getting rid of a single product, but rather require fundamental changes and sacrifices in the production process. In other words, will the bans put forth by corporations and cities scale in a way that adequately addresses our systemic addiction to plastic products? This journalist finds it hard to imagine a world where our exclusive focus on straws results in the willpower required to do so.  

So what next? We can’t rely on the good-will of corporations or the occasional city-wide ban to adequately address plastic pollution; we must imagine more expansive solutions. Short of questioning the capitalistic systems that underpin our consumption habits, we should at least consider the merits of more aggressive federal policy. A worldwide tax of one penny on every pound of plastic resin manufacture would raise six billion dollars a year; the U.S. Government could implement a similar policy and potentially use the funds to start developing desperately needed domestic recycling infrastructure. In like manner, subsidies for plastic packaging alternatives could incentivize the packaging industry, which is responsible for significantly more plastic waste than any other sector, to move away from single use plastics. Considering the public support for city bans on plastic straws, we could also consider federal mandates to phase out plastic straws and other single use plastic items.

Banning plastic straws constitutes something of a low hanging fruit – it is an easy first step, but we cannot stop now. Environmentalists should seek to capitalize on the attention brought to plastic straw bans and highlight the success of our efforts, meanwhile directing that energy towards more substantial policy instruments that curtail the aforementioned products that constitute most of our plastic waste. As we move forwards, it is important to remember the physical realities and systemic issues behind plastic pollution, and do our best to avoid the singular lens of plastic straw environmentalism.

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