A number of cities, including Seattle, have banned the use of plastic straws in businesses. Three states, including California, Hawaii and New York, considered plastic straw legislation in 2018. Cities including Miami Beach, Oakland, and more than a dozen other cities, roughly half in California, have either banned plastic straws or required customers to ask for them. Other cities and states in the United States are considering enacting similar bans. This Issue Report explores the vibrant debate surrounding the wisdom of such ordinances and legislation. This Issue Report also includes a sub-debate section focused on the wisdom of companies banning their own use of plastic straws, as Starbucks has done, for example. In general, the debate revolves around a number of sub-questions: How strong is the environmental impacts of straws and how strong can the impact of a ban be? Can a plastic straw ban accommodate the needs of the disabled? What economic considerations factor into a ban? Can a plastic straw ban overcome questions related to the convenience of straws? Is a better alternative to force consumers to opt in to a plastic straw ban? Is it sensible to focus on straws versus other plastics? Is it better to focus on producers rather than consumers of straws? These questions and the arguments and quotes that fall within them are visually framed below.
Bans can be tailored appropriately. This could include carving out exceptions that allow, and even encourage, restaurants to maintain some plastic straws behind the counter to be provided on request to those that request them for reasons of disability (or perhaps child care as well). In Seattle, for example, flexible plastic straws can be provided to customers who need a straw for medical reasons.
Plastic straws can kill animals, while they are merely an important tool for the disabled. Depriving the disabled of this tool while they are out on the town may nevertheless be justified to save animals’ lives.
The disabled do have an option in the face of a ban, and that is to bring plastic straws with them when they go out. If a plastic straw is of critical importance to a particular disabled individual, then surely they can bring one of their own out with them, instead of relying on restaurants to supply them.
“Disabled people and their advocates already are raising concerns about the inability to get plastic straws, which are necessary for some people to be able to drink because they may not be able to use their hands well or at all and need a sturdy, flexible straw. If plastic straws aren’t readily available, people who legitimately need them will have to ask for them. That could lead to confrontations and become another opportunity for discrimination or profiling.”
Katherine Carroll, policy analyst at the Rochester, New York-based Center for Disability Right, said to Time Magazine in July of 2018: “The disability community is concerned with the ban because it was implemented without the input of their daily life experience. Plastic straws are an accessible way for people with certain disabilities to consume food and drinks, and it seems the blanket bans are not taking into account that they need straws and also that plastic straw replacements are not accessible to people.”
The disabled shouldn’t have to supply their own straws when they are out and about. This relegates them to second class citizenship, unable to enjoy the benefits that others enjoy. They should have easy access to plastic straws supplied by vendors wherever beverages are served.
“As social psychology has shown numerous times already, if you want someone to do something important for you, you’re better off by first asking them to do a small favor first — which brings us to our initial argument. Banning straws is not really about banning straws. It’s not peak slacktivism, as some have called it, but rather it’s about sending a message that’s essentially saying society is ready to take a small but decisive step in a very long journey. I’m not sure it’s the best step, and I’m not sure how much of a difference it will make in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a step — and we need as many steps as we can get.”
A plastic straw ban does not need to make a major dent in the harm done by plastic, it just needs to make a dent to be worthwhile. Any harm reduction is good harm reduction and worth the small sacrifice that is required of people and businesses.
Our Last Straw points out the following research regarding the harmful impact of plastic straws and plastics on human health: “Research shows that microplastics are in our drinking water, our food supply, and our bodies. This is known. And troubling. By 2050, virtually every seabird species on the planet will be eating plastic. The United Nations recently said that plastic-associated chemicals in food and our ground water may present an attributable risk to human health. Exposure has been linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption, and other ailments. Continued research is needed to fully understand these health impacts, including investigations into the cumulative effects of the chemicals in plastics on the human body, and in our food supply chain.”
“Americans use 500 million plastic straws a day. Those straws litter our streets, lands, shorelines, and oceans. Plastic drinking straws are among the top 10 contributors to marine debris pollution. They do not biodegrade but break down into smaller microplastics that have made their way into our food chain and the deepest trenches of our oceans. The research and statistics on the impacts of plastic straws across the globe are alarming. News articles are appearing regularly on what plastics do to our environment, our health, as well as efforts and innovations across the globe to eliminate and ban single-use plastics straws. As major distributors of straws, it is imperative the hospitality industry leads the charge for change working to protect our planet and everyone on it.”
Our Last Straw cited the following statistics in making the case against plastic straws: “Only 9% of plastics are recycled. It has remained at 9% since 2012 in spite of increased recycling efforts and education; Approximately 8.8 million tons of plastic pollution flows into the oceans each year, an amount expected to double by 2025; Estimates for how long plastic endures range from 450 years to forever; The rate of plastics production growth has increased 620% since 1975; Nearly half of the plastic produced is for single-use; Plastics can be found in every marine habitat on Earth, from polar ice to the deepest trenches of the ocean; By 2050, plastic trash will outweigh fish; Plastics do not biodegrade but break down into smaller pieces of microplastic that has made its way into our ground water and our food supply.”
“Whatever the number, straw bans in the U.S. will have virtually no impact on the world’s plastic pollution problem. Not only do straws represent a tiny portion of plastic waste that ends up in the ocean, but the U.S. itself accounts for less than 1% of the marine plastic in the world’s oceans, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Science. Europe’s coastal countries, by contrast, account for almost 3%. Just five countries — China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka — are responsible for more than half of the plastic entering the ocean each year.”
“when taken by weight, a report by Jambeck Research Group places plastic straws at only .03% of aggregate plastic in the oceans themselves, suggesting that straws’ lightness and buoyancy lead them to end up overrepresented on the coastline. Perhaps even more saliently, a recent survey by Ocean Cleanup estimated that nearly half of the plastic waste found in the oceans’ largest garbage patch comes from fishing nets, primarily commercial ones. These numbers point to what disability rights advocates have said about straw bans: while the bans have enormous potential to harm the elderly and disabled, they bring about neither the dramatic reductions in plastic that curtailing activities of corporate polluters would effect, nor the smaller yet harmless reductions that bans on items like plastic balloons and plastic shopping bags bring about.”
“The vast majority of plastic waste in oceans actually comes not from advanced countries like the U.S. but from countries like China and Indonesia that consume a large volume of plastic products but lack our modern waste collection infrastructure. Much of their plastic waste ends up washed into major river systems that empty into the oceans. A study published last year in the journal Environment Science & Technology by three German researchers found that 90% of the plastic debris found in the world’s oceans is dumped there by just ten of the world’s rivers—none of which are in the Western Hemisphere, much less the United States.”
“Banning access to an item such as a plastic straw — or fork, knife or spoon — just because some people can’t dispose of it properly is dumb… I recognize why some people want to ban plastic straws. They figure if they aren’t available, they won’t end up as litter and endanger our ocean life. That is a noble thought. But what’s next? Bans on plastic bottles? Aluminum cans? Napkins? Cigarettes? Candy wrappers? Plenty of them are strewn along the roads, too, which means they’re also getting in the water. Any consumable or disposable item can become litter. The answer is to get rid of the litterbugs, which has proven impossible to do. Public pleas and service announcements — remember the one of the crying Indian from the 1970s? — have failed. So have fines and large-print signs warning of those fines. I intend to look at prosecution data to see how often people actually are charged with littering and what their typical sentences are. Instead of taking the potential garbage away from litterbugs, it’s time to take them to task. Pennsylvania just toughened the penalties to require litterbugs to pick up trash in addition to paying a fine. That’s great. We should make that as embarrassing as possible by requiring them to wear a reflective vest that labels them a litterbug serving their sentence. Maybe we suspend the driver’s licenses of repeat offenders. Or make them speak at schools to get the point across to children. To encourage more prosecutions, we can offer rewards, to be paid from offenders’ fines, for people who report litterbugs and provide video evidence.”
Duke Moscrip, founder and CEO of Duke’s Seafood and Chowder, said to Kiro 7 in July of 2018: “When this started out [alternatives to plastic straws] were about 30-40% more expensive than petroleum-based products. Now it’s about 10%. But we did it anyway, just because it’s the right thing to do.”
There are many alternatives to plastic straws, including metal, paper, and biodegradable resin straws. Some may be more suitable than others, and perhaps none are perfect. But, there are indeed adequate alternatives to plastic straws. In particular, biodegradable resins that are used to make coffee lids, for example, can for a strong substitute for plastic straws.
The current composition of alternatives to plastic straws are not, perhaps, ideal because manufacturers have not been given enough time to produce strong alternatives. With the passage of time, alternatives will be improved, particularly biodegradable resin ones.
“Straws made of paper or other biodegradable materials are supposed to take the place of plastic straws where they are banned or won’t be offered anymore. Paper straws are garbage. They don’t bend, they fall apart and they don’t always work well with hot drinks. Special lids you can drink through aren’t an adequate replacement, either. And not everyone can use those alternatives so easily.”
Substitutes carry certain risks. For example, metal straws carry the risk of injury to the consumer’s mouth or teeth. Paper straws carry the risk of consumers ingesting paper particles. And biodegradable straws, like biodegradable lids, may melt and disintegrate into hot beverages.
Greenpeace’s Kate Melges told Seattle news station KIRO 7 after the city’s straw ban went into effect on July 1: “It’s taking a stand on plastic pollution… and really taking a stand on what needs to happen, a ban on all single-use plastic products.”
“There’s a better way. Instead of bans, we should shift all our use of disposable plastics from opt-out to opt-in…There’s no reason that accessibility and environmentalism have to be in conflict, but we may have to be a little more creative instead of imposing paternalistic bans. When it comes to straws, we can simply shift from an opt-out to an opt-in model. Instead of providing a straw to everyone, only provide straws—and other forms of disposable plastics—to people who ask. Provide them to everyone who asks, without question, without assessing them for need or disability. Do the same with bags, utensils, cups, and all kinds of single-use plastics. Cut waste, but don’t interfere with disabled people’s access to liquid.”
Banning plastic straws need not be viewed as a fixation on plastic straws, but rather part of an “all of the above” strategy to reduce the harms of plastics wherever possible. We can and should address the plastic pollution crisis in other areas as well, including addressing plastic bags and micro-plastics polluting the oceans. Nothing about banning plastic straws draws attention away from these other issues. In fact, in raises awareness about the harms of plastics to the environment in general, thus increasing the likelihood that we will fixate on other plastic pollution as well. Addressing plastic pollution is not a zero sum game, but rather additive.
One of the most famous examples of the harm plastic straws can inflict on animals was the case of a turtle in Costa Rica, where a viral video shows researchers removing a plastic straw from its nose. The straw had caused the turtle to become very ill.
“The fixation on straws is weird. There’s definitely way too much plastic in our oceans, so getting rid of any plastic can be a persuasive idea. I have been unable to find any evidence, though, that straws are a particularly big problem when it comes to the complex systems of use and waste that pour plastic into our seas, as opposed to plastic bags and micro-plastics, for example. Advocates of straw bans, including campaigners in Vancouver, frequently cite a study asserting that consumers in the United States throw away 500 million straws every day. When ban advocates in California cited the 500 million number back in January, Reason writer Christian Britschgi did some research and discovered that the figure had been guesstimated by a nine-year-old boy based on his phone calls to three straw companies. The real number is closer to 175 million straws a day. That’s a big number, but, in the scope of daily global plastic use, not nearly as dangerous as balloons, plastic bags, or the many sources of microscopic plastics.”
Producers certainly may share some responsibility in plastic straw waste reaching the oceans, but consumers do too. Consumers often do not dispose of straws appropriately. A ban addresses this consumer-centered problem and raises awareness about appropriate consumer behavior as well.
“There’s a better way. Instead of bans, we should shift all our use of disposable plastics from opt-out to opt-in. At the same time, let’s recognize the limits of focusing on consumer choice. Want to reduce plastics in the ocean? Make the producers pay for their waste.”